Insult comedians such as Don Rickles usually ended their roasting of sundry people in the audience by murmuring, with fake sincerity, "I kid because I care." That line has now become a throwaway cliché, but as with most hackneyed phrases, there's a truth down deep. We joke with our friends, making fun of their dating habits or clothes, simply because we like them and it would be too cloying to do anything else.
Many sitcoms have been built on that taunting gamesmanship, and so is the world premiere at Karamu, titled Johnnie Taylor Is Gone. In it, playwright Gregory S. Carr has fashioned an absolutely delightful if not particularly insightful evening around 10 denizens of the Golden Zodiac Lounge (picture a black Cheers) in North St. Louis. Within these cozy confines, the employees and patrons spend their idle time signifying, playing the dozens, and generally tormenting each other -- usually for fun. The serious thread running beneath the steady stream of gibes is the fact that the faltering Zodiac and its Al Green-oriented jukebox cater to an aging clientele, while the hot clubs are attracting the Nelly and Ashanti crowd. This fact is accentuated by the photos adorning the walls of Johnnie Taylor, an old-school gospel and blues singer, now deceased, who once stopped by the joint when his limo broke down.
This lively Karamu production is a fortuitous convergence of a hilarious script, several finely calibrated performances, and pace-perfect direction by Caroline Jackson Smith. All the action in the bar swirls around owner Will Strong, played with a fierce glower and a dagger-sharp wit by Cornell H. Calhoun III. (Scorning the young crowd drawn by contemporary music, he says, "This ain't no Chuck E. Cheese!") Working beside him is Annie (strong and handsome Eva Withers-Evans), who trades cut-downs with her customers while trying to keep her two young waitresses in check.
Among the bar habitués, Marvin A. Hayes is a riot as Owen Pace. Playfully mocked by the others and henpecked by his unseen wife, Myrtle, Hayes uses his mellow sloe-gin-fizz voice and hangdog face (which lights up when he's dancing) to steal practically every scene. After too much shouting at the beginning, James Seward settles in as Bro Man and tells some of the funniest stories. And Desmond Jones is smoldering and sinister as the upstart Jiggy, who might want to buy out Strong.
Remarkably, the Karamu company manages to make the audience feel like Zodiac regulars themselves. Part of this feeling is due to John Konopka's nicely detailed set, which insinuates itself into the first row of seats and tables, so it's not clear where the stage starts (sit up front if you want to be served a bowl of pretzels). But these characters are written and performed with such genuine empathy, they truly seem like old friends. So one can hardly begrudge a series of logic-defying happy endings that tumble one after another before the final curtain. In the Zodiac, as in most comfortable lounges, reality is best kept at arm's length.