If it’s a good evening at the theater you’re looking for, I’ve got a top of the line drama, Sick Stories, Gentle Granddaddy by S A Johnson now playing through July 28 at the LeClerc Hall Theater on the campus of the Notre Dame University of Maryland and produced by Theatrical Mining Company – as part of the 32nd Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
From the first line spoken you sense that great storytelling is going to unfold as young Mabelle, the play’s main character, played with honesty and reflected humor by Dionne Johnson, begins reading from the eulogy she is crafting for her granddaddy that has recently died. His life and her recollections of him as she knew him are at the heart of this drama.
Stories abound and circle the audience like snatches of a family collage. These stories, mirrored by the living room set, designed by Bush Greenbeck, make use of sepia colored family portraits which, hanging a bit askew on the entire stretch of wall behind the living room couch, give a clue to the family’s dysfunction. Mabelle’s journey of discovery fills the audience in on the true life led by the man she calls “her king,” her gentle granddaddy.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Mabelle is haunted by bits and pieces of family secrets. Her love interest, Benjamin, played with commitment, savvy and skillful humor by Morgan Mosely is at loose ends. He has a job but chooses to treat it casually, often electing to go out drinking rather than honoring his work responsibilities.
As other family members are introduced, I was struck by the versatility of the writer – S A Johnson’s approach to bridging the past with the present. With many roles played by the same actors, it became an attention-getter to keep up with the flexible way in which each story was brought to life.
As Mabelle begins asking the questions whose answers she is afraid to hear I noticed the choreopoem style of Johnson’s earlier work, XX Chromosome Genome Project around the periphery of the interplay between characters.
Allowing characters to speak after pregnant pauses as if reading words from a writer’s notebook – was brilliant. Echoes of a Greek chorus were also evident as family members from the past & those from the present simultaneously spoke the same lines.
This play has many stories, inside many stories. From Mabelle’s Uncle Junior, played by Kevin D. Baker with charm and agility we hear ‘The Allowance Story’ in which a strangely twisted account of her mother and uncles’ childhood reveals issues around Granddaddy’s inability to bring his money home on payday. As with many families, Alcoholism claims the root of the conflict that separates Granddaddy from his family, creates a hostile home environment and is the basis of his wife, Queen’s abuse Queen, played by April Johnson with just the right balance of tragedy and comedy, was a pleasure to watch. Johnson brought life and truth to her role and I found myself looking for her to return to the stage in each scene. She was a true delight.
One story contains the theme of a family’s acceptance of homosexuality. This sensitive issue is handled with compassion by a family attempting to deal with the specter of a crossdressing son, Austin, played by Khris Burrell with sophistication, who must deal with the brute force of his father’s embarrassment.
Played with spontaneous anger and rage by Don Murray, Granddaddy shows many faces to family and friends, Herbert (William Walker) and Glen (Austin Berry) who both guard and exploit his excesses. In smaller roles, Little Miss Mabelle (Dejanae McDonald), Sister/Hathel Mae (Mesha McDonald), and Fudge (Archie Williams), added immeasurably to the landscape of the play.
One of the more poignant stories in Sick Stories, Gentle Granddaddy, told of an assault in which Mabelle’s mother, Miracle, played with presence and generosity by Loren Bray and brother Austin, were attacked by their mother’s employer’s sons. It showed the profound ability of siblings to feel responsible for each other even in the midst of family dysfunction. Loren attributes the ease of her performance with understanding her mother’s experiences as a strong woman in situations that gave her the courage to persevere.
The eulogy when read, shows Mabelle being dressed on stage in funeral black attire and gives hope that she has found within the stories the hope that will change her life. She seeks to do as her Granddaddy has asked – tell all of the truth.
Kudos to Directors Tyrone Chapman and daughter Shelby Chapman for fantastic blocking and sensitive, flawless movement during each scene. Lighting Designer Charles Danforth III put the spotlight on subtle emotions which helped deepen the audience’s responses. Sound Designer Dorian Chapman brought just the right mix of music representing the periods visited throughout the show.
The clever curtain call celebrates what all families come to understand – that despite the disclosures of family secrets that threaten to separate us from each other, simple traditions bind us with the love and forgiveness.
Sick Stories, Gentle Granddaddy is the kind of play that picks up the pieces of family history we all have hidden in the closets of our minds and helps us reach for the joy we must share despite the tears we shed. Truth with both eyes open – that’s what you’ll get when you come to see this play. You’ll shake, you’ll cry, you’ll hoop with laughter, and you might want to see it all over again!