Monday, November 06, 2017

Karamu and Ensemble team up for dealing with “The Lake Effect”

Karamu and Ensemble are two venerable local theatres. 

Karamu, the joyful meeting place, is the oldest continually running Black theatre in America.  Ensemble, whose purpose is to showcase classical American drama, has some of its history steeped in Karamu. 

Lucia Colombi, one of Ensemble’s founders was, at one time, Karamu’s interim Artistic Director.  Her daughter, Celeste Cosentino, Ensemble’s present Artistic Director, spent much of her informative theatre years at Karamu.

It is logical, therefore, that the two theatres join forces to produce “The Lake Effect,” a local playwright’s Cleveland-centric script.

Rajiv Joseph is a Cleveland Heights native, a multi-award winning author, who has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (“Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo”) and won an Obie Award (“Guards At The Taj”).  These, and several of Joseph’s other scripts, including “Animals Out Of Paper” and “Gruesome Playground Injuries” have had Ensemble productions.

“The Lake Effect,” as with other Joseph scripts, is intimate and character-driven.  It spotlights his imaginative voice and his ability to come up with innovative, often quirky ideas, to develop a message.

Joseph says of “The Lake Effect,”” it is, in many respects, a play about separate worlds colliding. On one level, these worlds are divided by race and culture, but beyond that, it’s a play about secrets and families and what binds us together as just regular people.”

It is winter, 2013.  There is a typical 216/440 snow storm raging outside the small, intimate Indian restaurant in Lakewood.  (Yes, the script is filled with area references such as the Cuyahoga River and Edgewater Park.)

Inside we find Vijay, an assimilated mid-thirty-year old son of Vinnie, a man from India, who emigrated with his wife to the area and operated the small neighborhood restaurant while living with his family in the apartment above the establishment. 

Vijay’s mother died in an auto accident when he was 12, leaving not only a void in his life, but resentment because Vinnie unceremoniously dumped her ashes in Lake Erie.  The action caused a permanent rift between father and son.

Vijay fled Cleveland, became a day trader in New York and has returned for his father’s funeral.

As Vijay goes over the restaurant’s books, Bernard, an African American enters in search of lamb biryani.  He asks about Vinnie and shares tales about the family which Vijay didn’t know.  Who is Bernard?  Why does he know this information?

When Priya, Vijay’s younger sister appears, much of the mystery of the relationship between Vinnie and Bernard is revealed, as well as the facts of the strained relationships between the father and his children.

Joseph’s script does not have the depth of some of his other writings, but it holds attention.  As always, the actor’s writer, he gives cast members fleshed out characters to develop. 

Celeste Cosentino’s direction is focused.  Though the script is very talk-centered, she keeps the action moving, thus holding attention.

The cast is generally effective.  LaShawn Little shines as Bernard.  He doesn’t portray Bernard, he is Bernard.  His long monologue, which finds him isolated, outside, in the cold, with snow falling on him, spotlights the play’s theme, as expressed in the analogy that we are all connected by the “water is us,” in this case, the lake effect snow.

Resembling a young Omar Sharif, matinee-idol handsome Ammen T. Suleiman has some nice moments as Vijay.  At times, Natalie El Dabh (Priya), falls into becoming an actor portraying a character, rather than becoming the person

Karamu’s Concert Hall, a newly repurposed black box acting space, allows for an intimacy which this script needs.  Being up-front and personal with the cast allow for a requisite connection.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “The Lake Effect,” written by Cleveland Heights’ award winning playwright Rajiv Joseph, is a thought-provoking script which uses Cleveland area references to develop its theme.  It gets a creditable production at Karamu.

THE LAKE EFFECT continues through November 26, 2017 in the Concert Hall (Black Box Theatre) at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street.  For ticket information call 216-795-7070 or go on line to