Black history month, celebrated yearly in February, became a national tradition in 1976. It is meant as a time to celebrate historic events from 1865, when the thirteenth amendment of the American constitution officially abolished slavery in the U.S.. Dr. Carter Woodson, thought there was need to give a voice to African-Americans who were wrongly represented and treated in early times. He selected February because it contained the birth dates of both Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves, and abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, who was a great orator and living counter-example to slaveholders who believed that Negroes did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.
Lonne Elder and his play, “CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN,” is a wise selection by Karamu for Black History month. Elder won the Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Playwright for CEREMONIES. In 1973 he became the first African American male to be nominated for an Academy Award for “SOUNDER.”
“CEREMONIES,” along with Lorraine Hansberry’s “RAISIN IN THE SUN,” are considered forerunners for setting a high bar for scripts authored by Black writers.
The play concerns the ceremonies acted out by African-American men as they fight for their individual roles in life. The matriarchal structure of the Black family which goes back to slave days when males were removed from the family unit, forcing the women to carry an unbalanced share of the work load, creates a unique cultural role for males.
The three men of the Jenkins family, who live in the Harlem section of New York, were first supported by their wife and mother, and now by their daughter/sister. Russel Parker owns a barber shop with few clients. His sons, Bobby and Theo, live a life of slackness and crime. All claim to be unable to get jobs because of the white-controlled financial community.
Into their lives come William Jenkins and Blue Haven. Jenkins finds sanctuary playing checkers with Russel. The duo has created a ceremony that allows for insulation from a society in which they have failed. Blue Haven is a con man, who finds out that Theo has a recipe for making tasty liquor, which he produces in the basement of the barbershop. Blue sets up an illegal business which finds Theo doing most of the work, while Blue makes most of the profit.
Russel, William, Bobby and Theo survive, bond, develop patterns of self-deception, display intrafamily allegiances, and model Negro manhood of the time. Blue completes the pattern of ceremonies by showcasing a scenario where Blacks take advantage of other Blacks.
Elder’s message is an encouragement for Blacks, especially Negro men, to break free of the ceremonies and challenge the myth that “the social, political, and economic plight of Black America rests in the hands of the white people, and assume the role of defeating futility, corruption, and internal disruptions that result from efforts to undermine and define African Americans’ worth and selfhood.”
Karamu’s production, under the direction of Christopher Johnston, though a little long, is engaging and well-conceived. Johnston understands the author’s intent and holds a tight fist on not overdoing what could be a farcical or overly-tragic story.
Former county commissioner Peter Lawson Jones well-develops the role of Russel Parker, the father and barber. He creates a person who is very real.
Katrice Monee Headd, nicely textures Adele, the daughter and sister who is forced to hold the family together after their mother dies, thus giving up her life for that of her father and brothers.
Prophet Seay (Theo) and LaShawn Little (Bobby) are so real that one might feel like slapping them “ upside their heads” and wake them up to the necessity to take responsibility for themselves.
Kenny Parker is appropriately snarly as Blue. Some of his lines are difficult to understand due to his constant chewing on an unlit matchstick. The technique sets a character-right tone, but becomes a detriment as it is overdone and is problematic.
Cornell Calhoun III develops Mr. Jackson into a clear image of an older black man who has learned to play the role of “Negro” and doesn’t know how to escape from the shackles.
Richard Morris, Jr.’s barbershop/house set design works well to allow for the needed stage action.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN” is an important play in the history of Black American arts. It gets a very strong production at Karamu.
“CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN” continues through February 23, 2014 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, guarded and lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking. For ticket information call 216-795-7077.