Plays are like children. Some explode with realized potential and become fascinating and irresistible, while others only show glimmers of what might have been.
Unfortunately, A Song For Coretta by Pearl Cleage, now at Ensemble Theatre, fits into the latter category, although the largely talented cast is not to blame.
Cleage has constructed a 75-minute piece with five interesting women and some clever twists and then given these promising characters nowhere to go. No doubt sensing that gap, Cleage then tacks on an ending that is so over-the-top that it literally swamps everything that has come before.
Things don’t start off all that well, either. In order to get her characters talking, Cleage drags out the clunky device of a young wannabe radio reporter named Zora (Alecia Henderson) interviewing people lined up to pay their respects to Coretta Scott King, widow of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. They are huddled outside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, waiting to be allowed inside.
Thus, each of the four women who show up are put on tape: Helen (Angela Gillespie Winborn), an older woman who met Coretta decades before; Mona Lisa, a street artist up from New Orleans; Keisha, a surly high school sophomore (twice held back) who is saddled with a pretend baby for a class project; and Gwendolyn, a soldier just back from Iraq.
Despite the forced situation, Cleage and director Margaret Ford Taylor manage to create a couple believable characters and some captivating interchanges. This is helped immensely by Neda Spears, who brings a downplayed realism to Mona Lisa and Camille Trammell’s pouting presence as Keisha.
However, just when we’re getting to know these women and beginning to see how their relationship to Coretta’s life and memory might influence their lives, the whole enterprise goes off the rails.
Suddenly, Mona Lisa and the newly arrived Gwendolyn (Sonia Bishop) are captured in pin spots, relating atrocities they were involved in during Hurricane Katrina and in Iraq. These stories are so out of place, and staged with such oppressive obviousness, that one might laugh if the content were not so horrific.
Then, the lights come up and the cast exits singing an optimistic spiritual. That leaves the audience to piece together the strands of these wildly varied lives and intriguing experiences that the playwright never bothered to knit together. Consider it a theatrical DIY project.
A Song For Coretta
Through January 29 at the Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Hts., ensemble-theatre.org