Now don't go misunderstanding me. I'm not trash-talking anybody here. I think Playhouse on the Square serves a valuable purpose within our community, especially when it comes to education and outreach. But when I sit back and consider our city's two professional theater companies in purely artistic terms, it seems that the Memphis Black Rep, an organization spawned by the ever-expanding Playhouse empire, is rapidly positioning itself as the more significant. Here's why:
Playhouse on the Square is, outside of its educational branch, exclusively in the import business. It produces a fairly healthy mix of newer plays and musicals as well as classics and standards, all of which were developed elsewhere and have little or no actual connection to our community. Playhouse is our somewhat commercially tinted window to the world of live performance, offering up occasional nods to more interesting, if less marketable, theatricals. The Black Rep is just a little more ambitious. In addition to producing a balanced slate of culturally significant works such as The Trial of One Short Sighted Black Woman and Day of Absence, alongside lighter endeavors such as 5 Guys Named Moe and Once on This Island, it has begun to produce a body of original work.
Last season's The Soul of a People, a compiled script using poetry, prose, and music from the Harlem Renaissance to trace the African-American experience from slave ships to the present, was an auspicious, if troubled, premiere. This year's season opener, The 24/Seven Cafe by Ruby O'Gray, who recently won an Ostrander for her performance in The Trial of One Short Sighted Black Woman, focuses on life in a greasy spoon modeled after the Harlem House Restaurants, at one point in Memphis history the only place where black people could be served a piping-hot meal 24/7. While both of these very different new works could stand a good deal of fine-tuning, they represent a giant leap for the Memphis theater community. By developing experimental (Soul of a People) and commercial (24/Seven) work, the Black Rep not only seeks to create a pride-based bond with the community at large, it puts itself in the position of becoming cultural exporters. It has opened up a trade route which might very well make Memphis' unique theatrical voice available to the world. I've said it before and I will say it again: Regardless of vision and ability, those in the business of mounting proven shows from elsewhere are craftsmen, and that's no pejorative. But those seeking the title of artist must, as a matter of course, make their own gravy.
The 24/Seven Cafe isn't exactly groundbreaking work. It's a feather-light sitcom with one meager through-line holding it all together: Will Allene, a melancholy young waitress at the cafe, find the love she so richly deserves? It's a tried-and-true recipe for entertaining fluff, and playwright O'Gray mostly gets it right. There is not an ounce of pretension in her script, which is infused with sight gags and bolstered by delightfully lowbrow humor. And while the story itself may be a bit threadbare, it is told through the eyes of 10 unforgettable characters.
Bullshittin' and brawling their way through the show, the gigantic Bob Muse and the diminutive Tony Anderson make a fine comic duo. Muse's Thomas is a potty-mouthed letch with a heart of gold who lives to look up women's skirts, while Anderson takes on the role of Fred, a presumably pious man whose head can still be turned by a well-turned behind. Precious Morris (the sassy Carla), DeAara Lynette (the heartbroken Allene), and Folami Jones (the accident-prone Rita Mae) are equally fine as the cafe's tough and tender trinity of waitresses whose telephone greeting, "We're all night and we're all right!" becomes something of a mantra. Rozell C. Henderson makes such an attractive suitor that on Saturday night a majority of the female audience let out a spontaneous "I do" when he made his proposal of marriage to Allene. Dee Latch (as Etta), the self-sacrificing concubine Saffrita Mae in last season's Trial of One Short Sighted Black Woman, has taken yet another stab at playing the faux-ho with a secret. Women will hate her immediately, but, fellas, prepare to collect your jaw from off the floor. The remainder of the ensemble adds just the right amount of texture to the show, but Louise Davis' standout performance as Mrs. Bea, a sloshed undertaker whose taste for the bubbly leads to a stumbling comic trip through the snow wearing nothing but a slip, is absolutely unforgettable.
Director Harry Bryce has seen to it that any deficiencies in the script are masked by a microscopic attention to detail. The bacon, eggs, and sausage that are constantly being prepared on stage torture the audience with the irresistible odor of breakfast. It is a simple but potent reminder that, unlike film, theater is an art for all the senses.
While The 24/Seven Cafe won't go down in the canon of great American literature, it is thoroughly entertaining throughout. O'Gray should be mighty proud of her work. So should we all. This play belongs to us. Others may only borrow it for a while. n
Through September 30th at TheatreWorks.