Theatre Festival in Black and White hits high mark

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If you’re looking for a tradition of diversity in the Pittsburgh arts scene, you need look no further than the ninth annual Theatre Festival in Black and White. Continuing through Nov. 17, this year’s edition kicks off Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre Company’s 10th season; thus 10 plays.

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SCENE THREE—Anthony Chisholm and Edwin Lee Gibson in “Comfort Zone”

The premise is pretty simple—PPTCO puts out a call for one-act plays. They get a bunch of submissions—60 this year (the most ever). The scripts are reviewed for content, flow, logistics (can it be produced in a small space, what type of props, etc.) and length. From submissions that meet the criteria, selections are made; five from Black playwrights and five from Whites.

White directors are assigned the scripts by Black scribes, and vice versa. The result is a pair of interesting programs that cover a range of subjects and genres (some more effectively than others), and an opportunity for local writers to see their work produced onstage.

Program A starts off with “The Tool” by Mike Schwartz. A middle-age man discovers he’s been dissed by a student on a “rate-your-teacher” website. The on-line slight leads the almost-tenured faculty member to confront his unknown critic during a lecture. From there things get messy (figuratively and literally). The plot and the professor become unhinged, but thanks to actors Marcus Muzzopappa, Tonya Lynn and Barney McKenna, and Ron Black’s direction, this quirky lead-off is entertaining and topical.

Next is “The Vows” by Devonne Goode, a sweet fly-on-the-wall observation of a bride and groom preparing to begin their new life. Both are well are perfectly paired as neither one has written their vows. Kaitlin Mausser’s direction alternating the male and female perspective affords the audience a piece of knowledge couple are not privy to. LaTrea Rembert and Lamar Fields bring the right blend of calm and nervousness while Cheryl Bates White and Jamiliah Muhammed are fun to watch as the frenzied females preparing for the walk down the aisle.

“Diseased” by Eva Diodati is perhaps the standout in the festival due its bare, stark set that requires the actors to pull out all the stops to conjure up 18th century London. Director Lissa Brennan pulled double duty in a last minute fill-in as an imprisoned, disturbed seductress whose claims to be a werewolf make her the subject of a study to test a theory. Andy Kirtland as the doctor and Barney McKenna as the warden, round out the cast, delivering the gothic melancholy (and rarely drop their English accents).

Judy Meissen’s “Styrofoam Cup” is overly ambitious in its attempt to advocate and educate. Two professional women attempt to sway one another with their argument on the pros and cons of nuclear energy. Initially they have only one thing in common—a last name. Grandmother and granddaughter’s discussion becomes a metaphor for their estranged relationship. Directed by Menasha Miller-King, Darla Eisner and Charlotte Mile manage to hold an interest despite cumbersome dry technical dialog.

Program A concludes with a piece that could be from the “Twilight Zone” or “X-Files.” Ted Erick’s “Bridge City” opens with hesitant jumper contemplating a quick exit. She is interrupted by a homeless man challenging her determination with a quick primer on suicide by bridge jumping. Vendell Nasir II nimbly directs Felicia Cooper (Mattie) and Harrison Single (Harry). Mattie decides not to jump; a disappointed observant party (Alyse Hogan as Vera) reveals her double life as a journalist stalking jumpers and ghost hunter. And Harry is literally long gone—by a few decades.

Program B opens with controversial word play and the race card as Brittany Jovan and Andy Kirtland play a confrontational game of who’s wrong and who’s right. Written by CAPA student Alexis Payne and directed by Kyle Bastian, “Perception” doesn’t walk on eggshells with the topic of race.

“The Home Stretch” by Les Abromovitz lets us drop in on elderly Jewish widows passing time (or is time passing them) in a retirement home. They’re tired of chicken dinners and can’t find any good looking men. Under Kim El’s direction, Anne Louise Feeny, Claire Fraley and Staci Backauskas embody every Jewish mother you’ve ever known, bossy, opinionated with hearts of gold; this was one of the funnier plays.

Pat Golden’s “Casual Fridays” employs the fear and suspicion that has become routine since 9/11. Three men wait for the subway—an Arab (Mauricio Acousta), an African-American (Vendell Nasir II) and a man wearing a suit and a yarmulke (Andy Kirtland). They notice an abandoned duffle bag. Before all is said and done, the three are interrogated, ruffed-up and/or cuffed as righteous indignation and testosterone collide while two cops investigate the scene. Director Michael Moats plays up the tension and you’ll draw your own conclusion.

Ray Werner’s “Redneck Revenge” is a comedy where dark secrets are revealed at the viewing of a deceased powerful and wealthy bigot. Reputations are at stake as the possibility of the dirty laundry being aired rears its head. You’ll find just about every caricature and stereotype on Blacks and Whites in this production and all of the actors, as directed by Tracey Turner, play it all the way up for laughs.

The finale is “Comfort Zone” by Marlon Youngblood which features a strong cast directed by Mark Whitehead. Checkers (Anthony Chisholm) is attempting to resume normalcy after a murder takes place in his store. Slick (Edwin Lee Gibson) offers unsolicited advice and Rev. Worthy (Mark Clayton Soothers) stops by with some spiritual guidance, which Slick scoffs at. When the bereaved and angry parents—the victim’s father (Monn Washington) and the shooter’s mother (Cheryl El Walker) both arrive at the store for answers, Checkers who witnessed the incident, struggles to find a way to satisfy both parents.

Every year PPTCO ups the ante with the Theatre Festival in Black and White. Besides the addition of two more plays, artistic director and founder Southers brought in award-winning New York talent (Chisholm and Gibson) to take it to the next level. The beauty of the festival is that you don’t have to see the programs in any particular sequence but by all means, do see it.

The festival runs Nov. 3-17 at our theatre at 937 Liberty Ave., 3rd floor. Seating is general admission.

Tickets are now available—Thursday and Sunday shows are $15 online, $20 at the door. Friday and Saturday shows are $20 online and $25 at the door. See both programs and save $5! For group rates call 412-377-7803 or http://cts.vresp.com/c/?Pitts­burghPlaywright/ed09390ecc/TEST/0fe9bd542a to order yours now.

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