Monday, November 4, 2013

Cut Flowers, Karamu House

(From left: Prophet Seay as Ronnie, Dyrell Barnett as Kevin and Greg White as Paul)

We all know, thanks to the movies, that African-American men like to talk smack in the barbershop. But who knew such verbal jousting was happening in the back room of florist shops?

It’s stems that are being cut, and not hair, in Cut Flowers by Gavin Lawrence, now at Karamu House. This well-intentioned and frequently well-written script also features a bounty of missteps and wrong directions. And it is unfortunate that director Terrence Spivey chooses to amp up the melodrama whenever he can.

Still, there is an undeniable spirit to these proceedings that rescue it from disaster. And a few performances shine brightly, making the production a mixed bag of treats and disappointments.

Six black men are working in the cut flowers department of a florist shop owned by a white family. As they snip and organize their blooms, we learn about the back stories of each worker, from Kyle, the tight-ass supervisor down to Paul (Greg White), a quiet alcoholic who keeps sneaking sips from his pint bottle.

As Kyle, the talented Kenny Parker plays the single note of anger and frustration far too often, turning the first act into a repetitive grind. This is lightened to a large degree by some of the other actors, who engage in all sorts of verbal byplay and sexual teasing (about cunnilingus, primarily).

Chief among them is Prophet Seay as the loose and constantly joking Ronnie. He is a delight to behold on stage, even when Ronnie suffers a personal tragedy later on. Also strong is Anthony Brown as the beleaguered Mark, a man who is being physically abused by his wife but won’t hit back for reasons that are slowly revealed.

And Michael May turns in a glowering turn as Brian, the hardest worker in the shop who has a bundle of his own problems. The sixth man is Kevin (Dyrell Barnett), a militant young college educated man who keeps challenging his co-workers to think and feel.

An unseen receptionist Rhonda (Tonya Broach) interacts with the men over the intercom—a theatrical device that is rarely used, and for good reason.

The second act works better, thanks to a clearer set of conflicts punctuated by a drawn pistol. But the playwright’s tendency to lecture, especially through the voice of Kyle, takes the edge off of his more successful characterizations. Lawrence tries to work the central metaphor—you have to cut flowers to help them live longer—but the cutting of these people never seems equally beneficial.

Spivey helps his cast develop some strong characters, and with a stronger script and less melodramatic overstatement (be quiet Kyle), the downbeat ending would work like a charm.

Cut Flowers
Through November 17 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.

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