Oldsters in our culture have to put up with a lot. When they're not crowding onto Greyhounds to journey to Canada for affordable medications, they're dealing with a U.S. society that marginalizes their very existence. But the elders among us have much to say, if anyone will stop to listen. And that's what J.E. Franklin, author of the much-praised play Black Girl, does in her brief and intriguing work, Grey Panthers: Coming to the Mercy Seat, now at Karamu.
This collection of five 10-minute playlets presents what could have been the climactic scenes in five much longer plays. So, if you've ever been bored by the complex character development and exposition required by other dramatic works, this is the show for you. While the first play, Hot Methuselah, is a fairly obvious one-line joke with a visual punch line, the other four raise significant elder and/or racial issues. And, even though the conventional theatrical superstructure is absent, these miniatures are surprisingly effective, due to strong direction by Tisch Jones and a few captivating performances.
In Putting Pippy Away, elderly mother Ethyl and her daughter, Emma, are debating the fate of their mentally handicapped grown son and brother, Pippy. Morris A. Cammon is shatteringly real as Ethyl, a mother who has cared for her innocent, helpless boy for years, but now faces the need to move him into an institution. Even as she struggles against the medical wisdom of this choice ("Doctors been wrong before -- they told me you were a tumor," she informs her daughter), Ethyl can see there's no other way -- and Cammon helps us feel her agony.
Director Jones wisely keeps the entire 11-person ensemble onstage throughout the proceedings, to unify the presentation and provide a congregation of sorts, as key characters bare their feelings. Next up, in Two Mens'es Daughter, is Aunt Goldie, a smart-mouthed, snuff-dipping senior whose biological father, a despicable white man, has died. In the few lines at her disposal and without leaving her rocking chair, Joyce Meadows convincingly registers Goldie's dismay that her name should appear in her absent father's obituary, as well as her embarrassed regret that she has "ways like him."
The two women-of-a-certain-age in Shacking Up Grey are dealing with encroaching isolation in different ways: Monica (Petrella Springer-Smith in a relaxed, confident portrayal) is fornicating and traveling with a generous gent, while Lorraine (an uptight Gwen Wright) starts off righteously devout, but reveals an emptiness in her life that can't be filled by her grown children "buying groceries and putting them in my fridge." The last playlet, S'posed-to-Be-Daddy, features a frequently comical, vein-popping study in barely repressed rage as Rod Freeman plays Gideon, a father who wears his son's history of slights and insults like a hair shirt. When the prodigal returns, the predictable resolution is made memorable by Freeman's rendering of a man trapped between pain and forgiveness.
Some Pentecostal churches have a "mercy seat," where people come to bear witness. It's a credit to Karamu that they've filled this production's mercy seat with such indelible performances.