Arts » Theater

Toes Up

A lack of subtlety kills A Colored Funeral at Karamu.


Is there any better way to mark the passing of a loved one than with a New Orleans-style jazz funeral? It begins with a slow and mournful shuffle to the cemetery, accompanied by a band playing a somber dirge. But on the way back, the music becomes upbeat, and the mourners break into impromptu dances to celebrate the life of the departed.

Vitality and joy are absent from most death rituals, and it makes this tradition -- which arose from African spiritual practices -- unique and fascinating. One would wish that the world premiere of A Colored Funeral at Karamu could harness that kind of singular magic. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of a talented and diligent cast of five, this play largely feels dead on arrival.

Most of the problem stems from the playwright, Gregory S. Carr, who has demonstrated his writing talent before in the wonderfully funny Johnny Taylor Is Gone, which rocked the Karamu stage a couple years ago. But this time out, Carr has decided to chauffeur a hearse full of clichés, rather than forge new insights, and slather the whole business with so many morals for good living (don't eat sugar, get your checkups, don't snort cocaine, stop drinking booze and smoking cigarettes) that it has all the subtlety of an Army training session for extremely dense recruits.

Fragmented into almost 20 separate vignettes and songs, Carr doesn't deal with funerals so much as the many causes of death. Some of these -- police beatings, drive-by shootings -- are more prevalent in the African American community, while others (high blood pressure, combat fatalities) are more equal-opportunity terminators.

The hackneyed thoughts start flowing from the start, as a black-clad narrator speaks of death being permanent and the importance of living life to the fullest. But Carr doesn't explore these concepts; he just states them, over and over again. Even when he comes up with clever wordplay, as in the jingle "Choozin' 'Cides," Carr fails to make a cogent point, other than pairing the words homicide and suicide.

The skits vary in tone from sober to slapstick, but all share a relentlessly one-dimensional approach to the subject matter. For instance, a battered woman -- killed by her lover -- defends him from the grave, detailing all his violence against her and always ending with the words "But he loved me." We all know the stereotype of the enabling victim, but the script never probes further.

There are only two mini-stories that directly deal with a funeral, and if the playwright had built on those, he might have had a workable format. In one, a fresh-from-the-coffin grandmother and her granddaughter share family history; in the other, an amusingly emotional memorial service offers hints of some interesting characters.

The actors Jerome Anderson, Katrice Monee-Headd, Renee Matthews-Jackson, Saidah Mitchell, and Jonathan Wray do what they can with their flimsy roles. But director Christopher Johnston doesn't help by allowing scene changes to drag, which sucks substantial energy out of already precarious material.

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