City Lit Theater Company’s Collective of African-American Theater Artists

at the Live Bait Theater

“In 1958, there was nothing negative attached to living in the projects, which were nothing more or less than high-rise apartment buildings. It was a community of hardworking people with Christian morals and middle-class values, as conscientious about sweeping the concrete porches and stairwells as the people who lived across the street in frame houses. The projects were a detour on the way to better days–you weren’t supposed to stay forever.”

This revelation alone would be justification for Chicago writer Barbara Kensey’s story “Claiming the Cat’s Eye.” The program of one-act plays based on this and two more of Kensey’s short stories (produced by City Lit Theater Company’s Collective of African-American Artists) contains not only such startling reminders as this but poetry of a caressing beauty, as well as one of the gentlest invitations to understanding of the black experience you’ll find extended during this Black History Month.

The title play tells of young CeCe and the summer that forever changed her view of the world. Amid childhood games and anticipation of the neighborhood festival known as the Feast–“an annual celebration put on by the Italians who remained in the neighborhood after we moved in, held in honor of a patron saint unfamiliar to us black children, partly because we weren’t Catholic, but most- ly because we didn’t care”–CeCe learns about discipline, responsibility, and mercy, the latter through the undemanding affection of her mother’s shy and benevolent consort–who may or may not be CeCe’s father, but whom she accepts as such from that time forth.

Kensey’s tale is told in the first person by ten-year-old CeCe, with all a child’s unprejudiced candor and intuitive perception. She notes ingenuously that the Italian roustabouts assembling the fair have “skin as brown as mine.” The children’s anticipation of the Feast is vivid: “In the midst of games, we would suddenly stop, suspended, and listen for August . . . a big, yellow, slow thing looking not much different from July–except that August brought the Feast.” Subsequent descriptions of that event evoke not only its own magic but that of other summer celebrations: county fairs, church picnics, Disneyland, Riverview, and all the places of wonder and excitement we remember, according to the circumstances of our childhoods. Going for the specific, Kensey arrives at the universal.

Change has a grittier tone, chronicling a derelict’s fall from affluent bourgeois to curbside mendicant and his ultimate rejection–perhaps voluntary, perhaps compulsive–of the salvation offered by the miserly woman who adopts him. This story is rather ambiguous in its empathies, and the notion of the homeless beggar choosing his condition willingly, casuistically defending his decision with the adage about lean freedom and fat slavery, is disturbing. Bonding, the final play on this program, takes us back to more secure ground: it’s an account of a family vacation that imposes a bit more togetherness than the narrator, her sister, and their mother had wanted–until an accidental injury ultimately unites them.

Glenda Starr Kelley takes the credit for the three well-crafted adaptations: each one retains enough of Kensey’s text for complete coherence yet never slips into the just-too-good- to-leave-out talkiness that plagues so many page-to-stage projects. Kelley, who also directed, has set her performers a relaxed pace that allows each moment to sink in rather than strike the audience. Her task is facilitated by a uniformly excellent cast. Most notable is Edgar Douglas, who delivers a hallelujah chorus of a performance as the defiant old soak in Change and a muted, cello-toned portrayal of the genial father figure in Cat’s Eye. Pat (“Soul”) Scaggs as the laconic Mama manages to pack more significance into a turn of the head or the lift of a hand than could be conveyed in a ream of talk. Emily Marie Hooper as CeCe works hard to capture the prepubescent late 50s child, but she’s handicapped by an unmistakably contemporary and adult haircut. Glenda Fairella Baker has an easier time of it as the narrator of Bonding; Autumn Geist plays her snooty sister, as well as delivering a tight, understated performance as the severe mistress in Change.

Black History Month traditionally brings out a parade of sweeping productions–pageants celebrating the race’s contributions to humankind, epics tracing the long struggle to the present, and problem plays warning of the distance yet to be traveled. “Claiming the Cat’s Eye and Other Stories,” however, offers a microcosmic view, small and transparent as the glass marble of its title–a lens through which we can see a whole universe open out before us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.