Lonne Elder III's "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men" is a remarkably sturdy play.
At age 18, it is only slightly creaky, a bit long, doggedly realistic, but it has kept its shape and a great deal of its power--at least in the hands of the capable actors who are reviving it at the Beverly Canon Theater. It was a major work of its day--one of the earliest and strongest plays to emerge from the then relatively new Negro Ensemble Company in the effulgence of black theater that brightened our late '60s and early '70s.
By the same token, it is unmistakably a child of its day--steeped in a naturalism that is too often the stuff that film and TV are made of. The punch is there, but as with James Baldwin's equally durable "The Amen Corner" and Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," some of its urgency is dissipated. At the latter end of the 1980s, our taste buds seem to crave more of a mythic dimension, to want a greater sense of ritual in theater.
"Ceremonies" has its arias: Russell Parker's long speeches in his Harlem barber shop where hair never gets cut but where bootleg whisky gets made and sold; where the mysterious Blue Haven slithers in and out, chillingly dispensing wisdom, threats and money in equal shares; where Russell's buddy Jenkins comically admits to a love affair in which he lost his woman to another woman; where Russell's put-upon daughter Adelle speaks out for all black womanhood, and where his sons, Theo and Bobby, clash and commune until the final conflict.
Today these speeches sound a bit fixed in the play's firmament, too deliberately calculated. And yet at the same time that we admire the work for what it was more than for what it is, we are struck again by the agelessness of its strengths: solid characterizations, uncompromising self-criticism and self-affirmation.
This goes hand in hand with the revival at the Beverly Canon, that counts among its producers the affirmative Marla Gibbs (appearing in Ron Milner's "Checkmates" at the Westwood Playhouse) and her Crossroads organization. Gibbs, with daughter Angela (both of whom are also involved in producing "Checkmates"), has been at the center of the local resurgence of black theater, which had suffered some bleak years.
There is nothing bleak in the quality of the acting in "Ceremonies." At Sunday's matinee, Ed Cambridge (who staged the original "Ceremonies" for the Negro Ensemble and had just stepped into the role of Russell Parker as a replacement for the previously announced Raymond St. Jacques), was having a bit of trouble with lines, but none with the characterization. We had the complex flavor of this reckless, lazy, funny, tragic old man fallen on lean times.
In the supporting cast, Lawrence H. Jacobs makes a compelling Theo, both as the intelligent wastrel of the beginning and the hard-working bootlegger of the end.
Teddy Wilson (an understudy in the Negro Ensemble Company's original "Ceremonies") is an engaging Jenkins, Parker's old checkers-playing friend. Joan Pringle makes a credible transition from the schoolmarmish Adelle to the woman-about-town, and Dorian Gibbs as Bobby grows more believable as the confirmed thief of the second act than as the young Bobby of the first.
Two of the show's most vivid portraits rest with Stephanie Williams (of TV's "Fame") in a cameo as the young thing Russell brings home one night and wants to marry. She is at once attractive, fragile, tough and knowing. The other portrait is that of Taurean Blacque as the malevolent Blue Haven, the poisonous snake who wraps himself around this vulnerable family and won't let go.
Staging by Judyann Elder (the playwright's wife) could be more tightly paced, and the disposition of space is awkward in Randall Camp's and Virgil Woodfork's aptly seedy set, nicely lit by Leroy Meadows. Frank Billecci's costumes make all the right statements, but sound by Randy Briggs is inconsistent. The transom over the door remained open for the first half of Sunday's matinee, yet traffic noises were heard only when someone opened the door. A minor point, perhaps, but indicative of the refinement that still needs to take place to make this "Ceremonies" as sharp and spiffy a revival as it has the potential to be.
Performances at 205 N. Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, run Wednesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends March 20. Tickets: $22.50; (213) 642-4242 or (213) 271-6342).