Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Fascinating investigation of a world that many don’t know at Ensemble
The South Side of Chicago is noted for its gritty streets, drug dealers, drive by shootings and pressure for Black men and boys to not only protect their turf, but be “prideful” and not allow themselves to be slave to the ways of the “massa” (the white bosses).
Charles Smith, the Distinguished Professor of Playwriting at Ohio University, where he also heads the Professional Playwriting Program, writes gritty poetic language with a black man’s soul.
In “Jelly Belly,” Smith’s script which is in performance at Ensemble Theatre as part of Black History month, the author offers an “unremittingly bleak portrait of inner-city life and the enormous pressure on working-class black men to be gangstas.”
We meet Jelly Belly, the drug kingpin of the neighborhood, who is just out of jail. He obviously doesn’t have much fear of returning to prison for his first task is to entice Kenny, a young man who was a former “salesman” to return to working for him. The youth is caught between his hopes for prosperity through hard “legit”work and the opportunistic life of a drug pusher.
Jelly Belly also tries to convince Mike, a married man with a child, who has been working construction to “be a man” and not work to become a tool of the white establishment.
Smith depicts his tale of complex issues in a single afternoon presented on a plain front porch. He makes clear the difficult path of someone like Mike, with no education but lots of work experience, who has recently been passed over for a supervisor’s job by a young white college graduate. A “boy” who Mike is going to have to train to do the job.
The production, under the steady hand of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, is well-cast and justifiably can be a shock to audience members who are not used to the everyday pressure of drugs, guns and the underbelly of society.
Greg White is properly slimy as Jelly Belly. He makes the character easy to hate through his smooth presentation and confident ways. White continues to impress as one of the area’s top actors.
Lashawn Little (Mike) gives a nicely textured performance as the family man whose wife and family have given him a reason to persevere against the pressures of his neighborhood and societal patterns.
Mary Francis Renee Miller is rock solid as Barbara, a no-nonsense woman whose purpose in life is to make a strong stand for family, husband and son.
Last year Jabri Little was selected by both the Cleveland Critic’s Circle and BroadwayWorld-Cleveland as a “RISING STAR” (a promising newcomer). His portrayal of Kenny proves the critics were correct. This is one talented young man.
Robert Hunter’s portrayal of the drug-zoned-out Bruce, brings laughter, laughter which brings tears as a symbol of everything bad that can happen to a black, uneducated man who has been manipulated into walking through life as a dead, worthless soul.
Walt Boswell’s simple set design works well.
Capsule judgment: The 90-minute play sends out chilling messages on the grim reality of drugs, guns, and the plight of the American Black man in the modern world. This is a production which commands to be seen! It’s not a pleasant sit, but it is definitely one worth the effort!
“JELLY BELLY” runs through February 25, 2018 on Thursdays through Sundays at Ensemble’s Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights. For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org
Ensemble’s next production is The 2018 Colombi New Play Festival, March 9-25, followed by “Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika,” April 27-May 20.