4 out of 4 stars
Wildly funny! Boldly provocative! How does one recompense for the past? Lookingglass Theatre Company’s 30th anniversary celebration continues with Plantation!, a new comedy written by ensemble member Kevin Douglas and directed by ensemble member David Schwimmer. This wildly striking play tackles race, recompense, and culture amid non-stop sharp quick wit with big laughs. A Texas matriarch discovers the complex history of the ancestral home. When she reveals the news to her daughters of her decision to give the plantation to the descendants of a slave her family once owned, tempers flare and pandemonium ensues.
The poignant and hysterical clash of worlds use comedy set against the backdrop of some of modern America’s very real topics. In the playbill article entitled “In Conversation”, director and Lookingglass co-founder David Schwimmer says, “I’ve always believed that laughter is the key to disarming folks, and enabling them to engage in a more honest and empathetic dialogue about this most troubling and emotional of subjects….We have to be brave enough, and bold enough, to speak the truth - but respectful enough not to alienate or offend. Above all, we have to entertain the hell out of the audience”.
Spiked ice tea and a room full of women spilling the tea about each other, two sets of sisters with BIG personalities are at odds under one roof of a house with an unsavory past. The playwright’s choice in creating three stereotyped sisters on each side of the racial divide is well devised. Each sister conveys a particular attribute that can be stereotyped versions of parts of society, as well as serving as narrative foils against one another. The eldest sisters of each family, Ensemble Member Louise Lamson (Kimberly) and Lily Mojekwu (London), dig into the facets of the word “spoiled”. Lamson brings a fierceness and slight mania to her character, while Mojekwu portrays a quieter passive woman. Each struggle with their own battles, but portray themselves completely differently when the world wrongs them. The middle children possess characteristics involving actions centering around caring, while the youngest sisters showcase two sides to the technological age and the America they are growing up in.
This modern day comedy reveals true colors, which playwright Kevin Douglas brilliantly executes. In Plantation!, Douglas expertly navigates the english language and its regional cultural colloquialisms from Chicago to Texas. By utilizing the talented Eva Breneman as dialect coach for this work, the performance was impeccable. The detail in voice projection and pronunciation further allowed Douglas’ written word to come alive more distinctly and hold more weight against the potent tensions of America’s issues today. Each dialogue between families had a particular vigor reflecting relationship. The actresses who portray the Chicago sisters were particularly impressive in their moments alone together. Their conversations rose and fell naturally with a familiar rhythm. Douglas’ past achievements include his play Thaddeus and Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure, which had its World Premiere at Lookingglass in 2015 and garnered him a Black Theatre Alliance Award for Best Writing of a Play.
Janet Ulrich Brooks delivers a powerful performance as the single mother and matriarch, Lillian. Brooks’ captures the doubt in her character’s decision, while also conveying a strong sense of purpose and determination. Lillian’s efforts to maintain an open hospitable dignified household against her hell-bent daughters illustrates the difficulty of making a large life-changing decision particularly when it directly affects not only you on an individual scale, but those loved ones around you. Ensemble member Mara Blumenfeld beautifully controls the audience’s attention through her costume design. Each individual wearing prominent detailed items speaking to the history of that character. Even the detailed southern belle dresses each were cut and designed to reflect each girl's personality. Classic boat necklines and pearls for Lillian created a 1950’s blend with classic southern ballgowns. Other details included the color purple, petal skirts for the young, even a very Scarlet O’Hara frilled red contrasted starkly against a bold lemonade yellow. Courtney O’Neill’s scenic design of tall neutral walls are adorned with gallery paintings of prominent old white men and family portraits, as well as images of the favorite horse. With a set this grand and stationary, there is a reliance that falls upon the director’s blocking (which was EXCELLENT) and dynamic lighting that moves the story along. The visual tableau before the audience was not complete without Amanda Herrmann’s keen eye in property design to really complete the environment.
This production illustrates the ongoing conversation of race and the power behind kindness and communication. Satire is used as a way to draw attention to the truth of history being overlooked and the current state of America’s truth. This a play centered around differences while also revealing the similarities in what is right and just can bring us together. Those willing to be open-minded about tackling these large complex issues plaguing America and applying small solutions to our own lives can make the world a little better with small steps. It is stunning and wonderfully refreshing to witness complex social problems within a piece and not let the issues become bogged down. Mindful and provoking. Bravo to all!
Plantation! runs February 21st - April 22, 2018 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, located inside Chicago’s historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. at Pearson. For more information and tickets please visit lookingglasstheatre.org or call the box-office at 312.337.0665
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!