ORANGE — Robert Nemiroff chose an exciting and fascinating subject for his biographical theater piece, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black."
It was his wife, Lorraine Hansberry, whose best-known plays, "A Raisin in the Sun" and "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window," are revived regularly. She probably was the most notable black playwright as the 20th century passed its midpoint. She also was a poet, an activist and a modern woman who fearlessly faced the responsibility her gifts had thrust upon her.
In his production of the work at the Ensemble Theatre, director R.A. Blankenship Jr. generally captures the spirit and essence of Hansberry's personality and the urgent, vital tone of her writing.
"Young, Gifted and Black" is not a play. It is more in the form of a tone poem, in which flashes of autobiographical soliloquy mesh with letters, articles and scenes from her plays, which in themselves were sort of secondhand autobiographies. It is a fast-moving evening that entertains cheerily as Hansberry's words and aura rush past, a vivid portrait of the woman and the artist.
This sort of script is not easy to pull off. It requires actors capable of split-second switches of character while never missing the beats in the writing.
The 10-member ensemble delivers some very warm, insightful performances as the actors perform their chameleon turns. Though they come off better in some of the snippets from Hansberry's plays, they generally maintain a good sense of the writer's stature and import.
Valerie J. Ludwig, who spends the most time as Hansberry in the first half (most of the actresses play her at one time or another), is a delight, charming, witty and self-assured, just as one imagines Hansberry to have been.
Annzella Victoria is the most prominent and effective Hansberry in the second half and finds a different side to her subject--the fiery, socially conscious Hansberry who, in her middle years, became an international symbol of black achievement.
D.D. Calhoun, with elegant bearing and delivery, and a stylish way with her readings, is particularly effective as the teacher who helped Hansberry develop her dedication to language, and Deen Richards provides solid input at all times.
The males in the company, George P. Norment, Thomas Reusing and Kevin Deegan are all very strong, with Reusing particularly effective in scenes from Hansberry's plays, and Deegan powerful as a slave trader.
Chris Branch, and her daughters Denise and Tanya, are not as strong as the rest but provide an aura of innocence and naivete that fits the work.
It's a shame that this production is such a bare-bones affair, performed on an empty stage with a few chairs scattered about. The evening needs stronger production values to fulfill its intent. The staging's biggest disadvantage is the sparse and unimaginative lighting design by Ray Branch.
Despite the production's strengths, the troupe, citing "various reasons ranging from low audience attendance to general artistic differences," announced Tuesday that all remaining performances, scheduled Thursday through Saturday, have been canceled.
* "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," Ensemble Theatre, 844 E. Lincoln Ave., Suite E, Orange. Running time: 2 hours. All remaining performances have been canceled. (714) 998-2670.
An Eastern Boys production of Robert Nemiroff's compilation of the words of Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by R.A. Blankenship Jr. With Valerie J. Ludwig, Annzella Victoria, George P. Norment, Thomas Reusing, D.D. Calhoun, Deen Richards, Chris Branch, Kevin Deegan, Denise Branch and Tanya Branch. Lighting and sound design: Ray Branch.