Three productions launching this week's semifinals in Inner City Cultural Center's voluminous Short Play Competition perfectly illustrate how a play's ending may make, kill or thematically justify a dramatic work. (The festival is a comparative secret, despite 75 short plays having been staged at ICCC since September.)
Entertainment industry judges are appraising the writing talent, but except for providing judges, the networks and production companies have typically not lifted a monetary finger.
The plays reviewed here, if they score sufficient points, could be among the four to five finalists to be restaged Nov. 21 at the ICCC's 22nd anniversary gala.
Now about those endings.
Playwright Erwin Washington's "The Dreamer" is the story of so many determined black artists establishing artistic headquarters in high-crime neighborhoods. In this case, a black idealist (Norman Lee Harris) is nearly blown away in his own dilapidated theater by a drug dealer (Chris Brown, who gives the evening's strongest performance).
His wife (Carmen Stetson) is beside herself. The guy has lost his daughter to addiction (a convincing turn by the playwright's own daughter, Tamiki Washington.
Nevertheless, at the curtain the hero sticks with his dream of renovating a theater in a seedy locale not unlike those familiar beachheads settled by so many local black arts groups that are now defunct (Mafundi Institute, PASLA), or struggling (the Robeson Players in Compton, Watts Writers Workshop), or active (L.A. Contemporary Dance Theater and the ICCC itself). It's an ending that might appear corny, but it works.
The opposite happens with Peter DeAnda's "Changing Winds." A rural young black woman (Bee-Bee Smith), who is a fountain of "imagings" and wonderful, provocative spirit, goes too far in her changing identity game with a loving/lusting white youth and pays with her life. That tragic ending robs the play of all its prior rich suggestion and leaves you numb for the wrong reasons. Everything that has gone before is tarnished on behalf of a shocking and sophomoric finale.
"Sins of the Fathers," by Steve Copold, a production from Pan American University in Edinburg, Tex. (brought here at the group's own expense), knows exactly how to wrap up its dismal events. This ending, using images instead of words, nicely combines in a stroke the elements of joy and despair.
The fade-out almost makes you forgive the foregoing grime--stomach-churning images of food and spilled beer and overlapping shrieking dialogue from the two down-and-out Vietnam War buddies who share their misery and a shack (Greg Eldridge's alcoholic and Valente Rodriguez's durable hanger-on). After a noisy turn-off of a start, Rodriguez surprisingly settles into the intended drama, enough to suggest you've seen two different plays.