Black Ensemble

Everything about the Black Ensemble’s production of Anna Lucasta, an African American theater classic, is at least competent. A few things, including Senuwell Smith’s performance as the perfectly despicable Frank and Rick Paul’s set design, are actually quite good. But somehow the production manages only an overall feeling of ambivalence. And it’s impossible not to wonder why the Black Ensemble chose to revive this play now.

Perhaps the biggest problem lies with the troupe’s decision to honor the original script. Written in 1944, Anna Lucasta was considered pretty bold back then. Unfortunately, its “progressive” views on female sexuality seem anachronistic by today’s standards. The Black Ensemble’s current production does nothing to update the script, or to explain its relevance to a contemporary audience, so that the effect is one of formality. Everything’s in check but not much is believable.

The story revolves around Anna Lucasta and the tensions within her family. She’s been booted from the house by her father because of some dubious sins. His motivations are suspect from the start, although they’re never fully explored. On her own, Anna turns to prostitution as a means of survival, but even among the inhabitants of this demimonde she is perceived as deserving of a better life.

While Anna’s turning tricks, her father receives a letter from an old friend in Alabama who’s having a hard time finding a bride for his son, a recent college graduate. The friend offers Anna’s father $800 to help his son land a proper wife up north, where decent women are apparently more plentiful.

Unfortunately, the Lucasta family includes several morally bankrupt characters, including Anna’s brother-in-law Frank. He’d like nothing better than to pull off the matchmaking and collect the money, but it almost seems that he’d prefer a quick scam to any actual introduction of love into the matter. Anna’s brother Stanley is recruited into Frank’s campaign, and Frank’s wife Stella signs up too.

They’re still going through the list of potential brides when Anna’s mother suggests Anna herself. Everyone is stunned at first, but eventually they come around: the Alabama groom is perceived to be a hick chump, and Anna, who they believe needs respectability bad, might fall for the scheme if there were a few dollars in it for her. All they have to do is convince Anna’s father to let her back in the house, which Frank accomplishes with a couple of punches and a lot of threats.

Everything seems on track until Frank and Stella meet Rudolph, the groom to be, and realize he’s too slick, too educated for the former prostitute. Just when they’re about to give up on their plan, Rudolph and Anna fall genuinely in love.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the rest of the story: Anna’s past comes back to haunt her, but Rudolph, being the prince that he is, forgives everything. Then they live happily ever after.

Because the story has such a fairy tale quality about it–Rudolph and Anna, for example, fall in love and decide to marry within ten minutes of meeting–it requires absolute commitment. But first-time director Allen Edge treats the script–and Jackie Taylor in the title role–with too much reverence. In trying to get it just right, Edge has rendered it lifeless. The pacing is too slow, and people are constantly walking away from or toward each other without much reason. Smith’s Frank is the only tightly drawn character here, but that seems more because of the inventiveness of the actor than the direction. No one else matches Smith’s energy or commitment.

Taylor, the ensemble’s showcase player, is uncharacteristically off-key in this piece. When Anna falls for Rudolph, her performance is utterly unbelievable: nothing about it gives us a glimpse at the possibility that Anna might come out of her pain and cynicism. There is no exhilaration here, not even much appreciation. Taylor’s walking through this role.

Philip Yordan’s script was originally cast for an urban white family, but its themes–sexual abuse (strictly implied), women’s sexuality and independence–were considered too risque in the 1940s . In order to get his script produced, Yordan allowed it to be performed by black theaters, where the subject matter was considered more acceptable. Eventually, Anna Lucasta was made into a film that produced two major stars, Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr.

The historical context of Anna Lucasta is certainly of interest, but is it enough to justify this revival? It may be a classic because of the role it played in the history of African American theater, but Anna Lucasta is not a great play. Nor does it appear to be a play that can transcend its own time. The Black Ensemble may have wanted to do something important with this production, but it doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on why it brought Anna Lucasta back. The ambivalence shows. And that makes for only so-so theater.