So it is with Karamu's Before It Hits Home, an effort by playwright Cheryl L. West to probe the impact of HIV and AIDS on the African American community. But a simplistic script and hesitant staging combine to undo most of the good intentions this production clearly embodies.
Written in the early '90s and expressing many of the reasonable fears and excessive phobias about AIDS that existed at the time, West's play attempts to show how a man who's in a relationship with a woman but having sex with a dude on the side (in other words, "living on the down low") fractures his family once he is diagnosed. The man in question is Wendal Bailey, a jazz musician and father of 12-year-old Dwayne. Wendal lives on the road and apart from his son; Wendal's parents are raising the boy.
Unfortunately, the playwright never allows us to learn about Wendal, apart from his disease, since he coughs (aha!) from his first appearance onstage straight through to the end. Thus, we never appreciate why Simone (Angela K. Thomas) was attracted to him and why Douglass (Michael May) agreed to shack up with him. Employing scenes that are often too short to allow momentum to develop, West force-feeds the audience Wendal's plight. This is all to set up the second-act confrontation that takes place when he returns home to face his family, which also includes Junior (Wendal's army brother) and Aunt Maybelle.
To her credit, the playwright tries to put a twist on the expected reactions of the family, but the key surprise comes totally out of the blue and is unbelievable in dramatic terms. Still, West is a facile writer, and she cuts loose with some funny lines. This is particularly true of dialogue given to Maybelle, played with slick comic timing by Mary Dismuke. At one point, she is put off by the fact that Wendal and Junior are preparing the evening meal by consulting a cookbook. "Oh, they got to read to cook? Let me see if I've got a candy bar in my purse!"
In the role of Wendal, Tremayne Mitchell is hampered by West's two-dimensional portrayal, but he exacerbates the problem by overdoing his facial reactions when others are talking. Morris Cammon is credible as Wendal's mother, but her reaction to her son's tragic news seems too pat. And as the father, an actor named Jaribu manages to cadge some chuckles from his character's gruff exterior.
According to the program notes, director Ray Allmond has been living with AIDS since 2000, which no doubt gives him a special perspective on this material. But his slack pacing and slow scene changes -- along with a set by John Konopka that has more platforms and stairs than live playing areas -- conspire to suck the wind out of this message-laden tale.