Period piece at ailing Arena still uplifts Theater review

April 27, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

You know Rob Penny's "Good Black Don't Crack" is a period piece when you realize the word "crack" doesn't refer to crack cocaine, which wasn't in vogue in the 1970s, when the play takes place.

Instead, the title of this production at Arena Players refers to stalwartness, specifically that of the play's protagonist, Dalejean, 42-year-old, single, working mother. Dalejean's days are filled with working as a waitress, raising her three teen-agers and attempting to find time for romance.

All three aspects of her life are complicated. Her boss at the restaurant has lecherous designs on her; her 16-year-old daughter is sneaking a boy into the house when Dalejean isn't home; and Dalejean's love interest is more than 10 years her junior and has attracted the amorous attentions of the college student who lives upstairs.

Director Cheryl Pasteur has a history with this play. In 1977, she was in the cast of the original production, which premiered at the University of Pittsburgh, where playwright Penny is on the faculty. Since then, Penny has become known as an early mentor of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson, who also hails from Pittsburgh.

"Good Black Don't Crack" has a lot more melodrama and a lot less poetry than Wilson's work. And, the character transformations come about with little, if any, advance warning. But it's a warm-spirited work and the opening-night cast members had their hearts in it. (As is Arena's custom, the roles are double-, and in one case, triple-cast.)

Pam Sparks' Dalejean exudes not only the goodness referred to in the title, but also decency and a strong sense of family. Dalejean's three children are also credibly portrayed, particularly her youngest son, played with impressive naturalness by David McNair (an eighth-grader at Old Court Middle School) and her flirtatious daughter, played with a mixture of affection and rebelliousness by Daria Corbin.

Deblynn Brown is also effective in the comic role of Dalejean's overly religious best friend, the character originated by director Pasteur.

Pasteur's direction, however, and especially the scene changes, are unnecessarily slow -- a frequent problem at this theater and one that could be alleviated with less reliance on props and realistic settings.

Although "Good Black Don't Crack" isn't Arena Players' best work, it's an uplifting play whose author's connection to August Wilson makes it an interesting piece of contemporary American theater history.

Arena Players' financial woes have brought it nearly to the cracking point recently. But a committee of friends of the theater is working hard to assure its survival. Like the optimistic final scene in "Good Black Don't Crack," one hopes the outcome for this troubled theater will be positive.

'Good Black Don't Crack'

Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 7: 30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, matinees at 3 p.m. Sundays; through May 5

Tickets: $12

$ Call: (410) 728-6500

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