New venue, still Black and White

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This year’s edition of the Theatre Festival in Black and White is the freshest and most varied on many levels. The Eighth Annual “Theatre Festival in Black and White” “triples” as the first production of the 2011-2012 Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre Company’s season in its new home located at 937 Liberty Ave., Third Floor in the Cultural District, Downtown.

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TRIO IN TURMOIL—From left: Tara Lyn Zynel as Juliana “Ju Ju”, Camille Lowman as Shahada and Tonita Davidson as Sadiqua in “In My Sistah’s Closet.” (Photo by Aasiyah El-Kirk)

The premise of the festival is a microcosm of diversity and inclusion: mash up talents of varying backgrounds to present a theatrical mosaic that offers various genres of playwrights who offer unique perspectives as varied as the subject matter explored. Eight one-plays, eight directors; plays by Black playwrights with White directors and vice versa. Each performance features four one-acts.

Program A begins with “Felled Family Tree” by Ray Werner, which finds a bereaved family holding vigil at the funeral. Just as they prepare to leave, a couple enters to pay their respect. To avoid the awkwardness of the moment, the pair offers condolences; touching of a case of mistaken identity (the photo display that accompanied the closed casket had been removed.) Directed by Lonzo Green, “Felled Family Tree” is an amusing round of family story assigned to random relatives. The ensemble of Jennifer Marcin, Darren Shrager, Jeffrey Prebeg, Jr., Kit Mausser and Joseph A. Root serve up a dizzying round of verbal catch without dropping the ball.

“In My Sistah’s Closet” marks the theatrical debut of Aasiyah El-Kirk. What at first seems to be a hodgepodge of estrogen-driven caricatures evolves into a layer work of universal subtexts that undermine exterior perceptions. Director Vince Ventura manages to mine his actors to obtain the necessary range to drive home the message. Kudos to Camile Lownam, Tonita Davidson, Cheryl El-Walker, Tara Lyn Zynel and Naomi Grodin.

Constance Humphrey Egan’s “Runcible Spoon” at first glance seems to be a cultural class between generations turns into a really bad well-intentioned social experiment. Myneesha Miller does occasionally sidestep a minefield of clichés in the script; however Jamilah Muhammad as Celeste dispenses a righteous indignation as she exits the laboratory. A youthful cast shines in “Just Fishin’” by Kim El. Director Hallie Donner’s real world experience as founder of Alumni Theatre Company pays dividends in this coming of age tale with Nia Washington, Emmanuel Walker, Katherine Logan and Wali Jamal as Pop Pop.

Whereas the first program is austere black box theater staging, Program B is decidedly more high-tech. “Apple Says Yes” by Andre Guess is a satirical homage to the pervasive idolatry of gadgetry. Extremely fresh (as in recently written) and over the top, “Apple” is ripe with puns and humor (and a tad long). Randy Kovitz directed the ensemble cast of Jaime Slavinsky, Adam Kroloff, Kenny Champion, Bill Crean and Don Digiulio who rises to the smart, snarky script. “I Said Good Night” by Tameka Cage-Conley is a dark nuanced tale of betrayal directed by Todd Betker. Ménage a trois is always tricky, especially when the odd person out is the pregnant wife. Skillfully presented by Angelo Bruni, Danielle Thomas and Valentina Benrexi.

“The Balancing of the Budget” by Matt Henderson and directed by Michael Jackson, is a decidedly off-balanced take on the culture of instant fame/celeb-reality via YouTube (think Justin Beiber and Antoine Dodson). Overly ambitious and earnest, gotta give it up to Connor McCanlus, Lamont Robinson and Xazrianna Walker for sheer bravery. The finale, “Shaving Lessons and Half Windsor Knots” by F.J. Hartland is a sentimental reflection of a father-son bond directed by Ja’Sonta Roberts-Deen with thoughtful performances by Ian Pisarcik Michael Moats and Ja’sonta Ann.

“Theatre Festival in Black and White” runs through Dec. 4. There are four one-act plays in each program and each program will be ticketed separately. Tickets are available by phone at 412-212-8031 or online at http://www.pghplaywrights.com/bwfest. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company is located in the Downtown Cultural District at 937 Liberty Ave., 3rd floor.

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