Monday, September 19, 2011

You Got Nerve!

YOU GOT NERVE!, a work in progress at Karamu

In 1915, Russell Jelliffe and Rowena Woodham, a pair of Oberlin graduates, opened The Playhouse Settlement House at the corner of East 38th and Central Avenue. Little did they realize that besides getting people of all races and creeds to share common ventures, they were laying the foundation for what today is the oldest African American theatre in America. A theatre that has helped hone such luminaries as actors Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Robert Guillaume, Dick Latessa and Ron O'Neal, as well as playwright and poet Langston Hughes. Cleveland legends Dorothy and Reuben Silver served on the organization’s staff for 21 years.

The Playhouse Settlement was renamed Karamu, a Swahili word meaning "A place of enjoyment in the center of the community,” in 1941. It is indeed a place of enjoyment which has many community building traditions, such as members of the audience being personally thanked by the entire cast during a procession following each show. And, each show starts with a homey interaction between the vivacious Vivian Wilson, the organization’s Marketing Director, and the audience.

In honor of its 97th anniversary, which is named “The Season of Joy and Perseverance,” Karamu Theatre, is presenting a world premiere of a play by its Playwright in Residence, Michael Oatman. A native Clevelander, Oatman, who is a member of the Playwrights Unit at the Cleveland Play House, has written a number of plays including LET IT BLEED, which was premiered at The New Work, New Ways Festival at the University of Nebraska, and BEFORE I DIE; THE WAR AGAINST TUPAC SHAKUR presented at CPH’s Fusion Festival. This year, he was the recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize “Emerging Artist Award.”

The basic story of YOU GOT NERVE! centers on a group of inner city kids who hassle students at the Cleveland School of the Performing Arts, when the school’s campus is moved into an area that lacks safety. As a result of a fight which ensues, both groups are assigned to community service in the senior citizen’s home which was trashed as it became the uninvited host for the conflict.

As often is the case with the presentation of a new script, YOU GOT NERVE! needs further development. There are some nice moments, such as relating the history of such issues as the poll tax and the connection between the youth and the seniors, but it is definitely a work in progress. some of the language is not that used in natural speech. Lines often sound like written rather than oral language. There are just too many side topics that cause story to lack focus. Teenage love, homelessness, Alzheimer’s, inner city/suburban differences, the African American class system, youth-elderly lack of understanding, historical Black music and entertainers, all come and go within the play’s framework, with none completely developed. What’s the author’s intent and purpose? Specifically, what is he expecting us to carry from the theatre?

The large cast, many of whom are students at the School of the Performing Arts, puts out full effort. There are some nice performances, including those by Chelsea Anderson, who develops a consistent identity as Claire, a bright young lady who lives to sing; Brenda Adrine, as Ms. Adrienne, one of the home’s senior residents, has a nice grasp of the character; and, Antaune Rogers, though playing a character way beyond his years, correctly speaks ideas rather than just words.

On the other hand, there are overdone characterizations with the performers feigning the characters, rather than being the person. Many of the lines seem read, rather than spoken. There is a lack of projection by some actors, so ideas get lost. Director Terrence Spivey needed to work with the cast on realistic performance and idea development. Most of the cast are performers in training, and needed more assistance.

Capsule judgement: YOU GOT NERVE! is a work in progress, both as a script and a production. It’s nice to see Karamu using students from The School of the Performing Arts and blending them with community members to help them broaden their experience base.