Are customs and cultures completed eradicated and evaporated when people from other continents, countries and cultures come to this great land we call “America?” I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the play, African Americans, written by Jocelyn Bloh; directed by Martin Damien Wilkins, at The Al Freeman Jr., Environmental Theater Space, in the Performing Arts building on the campus of Howard University, last evening.
The play opens up with a beautifully African-dressed Narrator, played by Brittany Turner, who with one look at her, you want to bow as she is queenly and royally dressed. She tells the story of this loving West African couple; Dramatic West African Wife, played by Jazmine Robinson, and Sensible West African Husband, played by Sideeq Heard, who come to America, New York City specifically, in the 1960s for opportunity. They are dressed in traditional West African clothing, complete with Dramatic West African wife’s headwrap, and Sensible West African’s Husband’s dashiki and kufi (African hat). They are full of life, joy, and wonderment at all the possibilities that the future holds for them.
West African Wife has the audience chucking as she contacts her family back home, and exaggerates the couple’s elaborate living conditions, (they live in a two-bedroom apartment). Robinson is hilarious when she responds to her family by making scratching noises with her mouth, saying, “There must be a bad connection,” to indicate that the family is asking her to send them money. As their children are being born (three in total) their excitement of possibilities intensifies.
Fast forward to the 1980s, and the couple has settled in, and acculturated to the way of America. Gone are their native dress; exchanged for American clothing. The transformation of the couple – Dramatic West African Mother’s hair is straight and on her shoulder and Sensible West African Husband is wearing a suit. The children are growing up, but have no sense of their families’ native tongue, customs or ways. It was never taught to them.
There is tension between Dramatic West African Mother and her middle child, a teenage daughter, “The Nagged Girl,” played by Diedre Staples, who surprisingly has natural hair. To the contrary of her teenage daughter, the son, who is the oldest, “Handsome Son #1, played by Douglas Ruffin, has a loving relationshp with his mother. He is the “All American Kid.” Athletic indeed.
During a scene where Nagged Girl and Handsome Son #1 are having breakfast, Nagged Girl teases him about a girl at school that he likes though he denies it. Mother begins to lecture him about not wasting his time on this (as he has a promising future), and then makes more of a statement than ask a question, “I bet she is a Black American girl.” The lecture to the son from the mother indicates that she believes “Black American girls” are beneath him.
The couples’ third child, a girl, “Mistake Third Child, played by Grae King, is definitely spoiled. She is clearly the apple of the couples’ eye, to the chagrin of Nagged Girl. King is very convincing as a “spoiled, tantrum-like little girl.” Another interesting observation is that Mistake Third Child’s carries around a white doll.
The love between this West African couple is diminishing. Sensible West African Husband has to endure the complaining of Dramatic West African Wife, of how he is not measuring up as a “man.” He works a regular job, and is doing his best, but his best is not good enough for her, so he gives in to drinking to soothe his pain.
The holidays are here. Dramatic West African Wife finds herself in a tug and war during shopping to get the “white” cabbage patch doll that her youngest daughter wants, while the sweet sounds of “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year,” sung by Andy Williams (with lyrics by Edward Pola and George Wyle), play in the background. Robinson’s display of retrieving the doll and telling her sister (on the phone), that ”she almost went to jail for it,” is comical at best.
There is a funny scene when the husband says to her, “Who is Mary Kay? One of your good friends!,” to indicate she’s spending money. He is fed up, and she is not thrilled with the cheap Christmas present she receives from him. Guess what that present it?
There is also a touching scene with father and daughter, in the kitchen, and mother and son in the son’s bedroom, where the parents talk about how they met, and how life was in their country, There is something about Christmas that is very significant to the couple; something that occurred when they were in their native home. What could it be?
Fifteen years later, Mistake Third Child (King) is in school to become an actor, Nagged Girl is a psychologist, and Handsome Son #1 very professional and polished. He’s in residency to become a doctor, and may have an opportunity to work in a city hospital in Chicago. Not good enough for his mother.
Dramatic West African Wife’s second husband, Replacement Second Husband (Heard), has his roots in Africa, but studied abroad in England, and seemingly prefers the British “accent. Second Husband clearly has no time for his wife, or her children. Dramatic West African Wife has the status she has always wanted, but is that all to life?
After the children leave, Dramatic West African Wife finds herself alone. Replacement Second Husband comes out from his study, to get dinner. Wife wants some attention from him, but is rejected. His attention seems to be with “other women.” An argument ensues, and Second Husband tells Wife, he could understand why her first husband left, and calls her a “bush woman,” an offense and insult to her native land, and to indicate she is beneath him.
There is a second touching scene where Wife and Nagged Girl have an intimate moment in the kitchen, and Handsome Son#1 and his father, Sensible Husband in the hospital. Has Dramatic West African Wife realize the love her first husband had for her? Sensible West African Husband’s medical condition is serious. Wife reveals to Nagged Girl the joyous incident that occurred while she was in Africa, as well as Husband reveals it to Son. I won’t reveal it here.
I would like to mention that the African-dialect of the cast was phenomenal. Kudos to their dialect coach, Courtney Ferguson. The set design by Michael C. Stepowany was modest, but befitting for the production. The costumes, designed by Kendra Rai and Adalia Vera Tonneyck, were traditional African attire which I found pleasing, especially Ms. Turner’s (Narrator) attire.
Howard University’s production of African Americans is on the line of many professional and Broadway plays I have seen. These students are well on their way to much acting success. Jazmine Robinson’s performance is outstanding, and she keeps the audience engaged. Sideeq Heard’s transition of the two husbands is effortless. You clearly see two different characters in his performance. The progression of this couple over a span of thirty years makes you wonder how challenging it is for people of other cultures to lose themselves when “Coming to America.”
I have a suggestion. Can we embrace the “melting pot,” and not let our country become mundane?
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with a ten-minute intermission.
African Americans plays through this Sunday, October 18, 2015 at The Howard University School of Performing Arts’ The Al Freeman Environmental Theater Space – 2455 Sixth Street, NW, in Washington, DC 20059. For tickets, purchase them at the box office or click online.