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A Cool Drink a Water

a World Premiere
CATEGORY : DRAMA
by Thomas W. Jones II

COMPANY : Horizon Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Horizon Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
ID# 3474

SHOWING : July 10, 2009 - August 23, 2009

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

Local Playwright and Actor Thomas Jones looks in on "A Raisin in the Sun"'s Younger family a couple decades later. It ain't pretty...


CAST & CREW LIST
Playwright Thomas W Jones II
Ruthie Donna Biscoe
Benita Marguerite Hannah
Walt Thomas W Jones II
Trane Enoch King
Asa E. Roger Mitchell
Mama Lee Bernadine Mitchell
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REVIEWS

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Making it Right
by Dedalus
Thursday, August 13, 2009
5.0
In the World Premiere production of Thomas W. Jones’ “A Cool Drink a Water,” we meet a family (the Youngs) on the edge of dysfunctional implosion. Benita hides in the bathroom with the ghost of her mother, afraid to tell her husband Asa she’s pregnant. Benita’s brother Walt and his wife Ruthie bicker in the other room about their son Trane, recklessly pursing a non-career as a rap artist. And a developer is offering what can only be described as a shipload of money for the house Walt and Benita have lived in since they were children, when their parents made the bold step of integrating a suburban segregated neighborhood.

If the names and situation gives you a “Raisin in the Sun” case of Déjà vu, that is purely intentional. We’re several decades removed from the explosive racial politics of the earlier classic, and we’re now looking at the more intimate, more divisive strains of family politics. What happens to a marriage when experience turns youthful dreams into a bitter pill? What happens to your pride when “The Man” cares more about his bottom line than your lifetime of loyalty? What happens to your adult children when your own bitterness does all it can to strangle their dreams in the cradle?

And, above all, in the midst of all this turmoil, how can they keep their sense of humor and their unbreakable affections?

Other writers have already kvetched about this script not being up to the standards set by Lorraine Hansberry’s classic (as if any “sequel” could ever hope to do that), kvetched about the humor and seriousness being a bad mix, kvetched about the problems being resolved in a too-fast (almost sit-com) manner, kvetched about this and kvetched about that and kvetched about too many other damn things that tell you more about the writer than about the play they’re kvetching about.

What I saw was an honestly-written almost perfect script that looks at a family at a crisis point, a family whose light and dark moments credibly spring from the same character well, a family that doesn’t solve its problems so much as sublimate them. It was performed by an almost perfect ensemble that was in turns angry and funny and irritating and wholly like most families we’ve known (or been part of). It was directed at an almost perfect pace (by Andrea Frye) and wore an almost perfect design that wallowed in the middle class styles and preferences of generic suburbia. For me, this was an almost-perfect play.

As to the charge that it is not “up to” Hansberry’s standards, well, as much as it embarrasses me to admit it, I’m not as familiar with “Raisin” as someone writing about theatre should be. I’ve never read or seen it, though, by the time you read this, that will be remedied (thanks to DVR and a Sunday B.E.T. rebroadcast of Kenny Leon’s 2008 telefilm of it).

Still, I suspect it will end up being an “apples and oranges” comparison – Ms. Hansberry was writing about a particular moment in her own history, her focus on the clash between the personal and the political, a racially charged diatribe against entrenched suburbia. Mr. Jones, on the other hand, is writing about the entrenched habits and silences of families who have shared a history-rich home for many years. He is writing about what happens when those silences clash, when those families have splintered goals, when the bonds of long-term history threatens to be pulled in too many directions over too short a time. By giving his Young family a thinly-disguised similarity to Ms. Hansberry’s Younger family, he is merely providing us some expositional (and presumably litigation-free) shorthand, making us think we know these people’s experience and history.

Playwright Jones steps on stage himself as the irascible and quick-to-anger (and quick-to-forgive-and-joke-about-it) Walt. It is a marvelous creation, both from a writing and an acting standpoint. His Walt snaps and snarls at his wife and son, is quick to judge and condemn their words and choices. But he also can’t help but wear his love and pride for them in the open, as quick to share a joke (and a calculated and funny seduction) as he is to share a wounded roar. When he lets himself honestly relate how his forced “early retirement” was like a stake through his pride, the moment pays off because of all the groundwork he’s laid for us, the layers of sarcasm and anger and humor that have scarred that wound over.

Every bit his equal, Donna Biscoe’s Ruby matches him snarl for snarl, caress for caress. If ever two characters were predestined to share a life together (locked tooth and claw and caress), these two actors capture them. That their respective goals and dreams have become almost mutually exclusive is the crux of their conflict, the irreconcilable difference that is never resolved, though the strength of their performances makes us believe it one day will.

Marguerite Hannah and E. Roger Mitchell play Benita and Asa with empathy and conviction. Ms. Hannah starts the play off, and it is her conversations with “Mama’s ghost” that set the emotional tone of the piece. Mr. Mitchell is equally compelling, an idealistic African doctor whose benevolence was decimated by one too many dying children. Convincingly conveying his wounded (but not-yet-dead) idealism through a generic “Africa” accent, Mr. Mitchell conveys his pride and love and the wounds caused by Benita’s silences.

Enoch King raises young Trane a few steps higher than the “angry young rap artist” he first appears. He is totally committed to his music, and totally committed to escaping the disapproving shroud his father has created for him in this house.

And powerhouse Bernadine Mitchell gives Mama Lee a fierce independence that makes her come across as a real character, not a filtered memory of Benita’s imagination. She even gets a sing a bit, and float over the proceedings like the ghost of Hansberry’s Mama she’s supposed to suggest. I was even convinced by her frustration at not being able to “reach out and slap you, Girl!”

As I said before, this is a play about family, and it is a true ensemble, with no actor (or character) outshining the other, even when they all want to “take center stage” in each other’s lives at the same time. The corny jokes they tell each other feel like “favorite stories,” the quick outbursts of anger are fully in control, fully resolved by a joke or a slap, fully in character for people who have shared a house for so many years. They are aggravating, funny, warm, chillingly bitter, and totally human creations.

On a hot summer night, “A Cool Drink a Water” goes down as pleasantly as a fresh breeze through a bedroom window, as welcome has a cold beer shared with friends you haven’t seen for too many years, as memorable as a fight you had with your Mom when you were a teenager.

See it, before another writer has a chance to kvetch!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

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