The Temple

ETA Creative Arts Foundation

By Adam Langer

The trouble with Charlotte A. Gibson’s rich but disappointing new drama is an excess of metaphor. The hair-braiding salon at the center of her play can’t be a mere braiding salon: no, the Temple is a place for contemplation and worship, a symbol of what remains of black Americans’ heritage, and finally a locus of religious significance, as ancient spirits arrive to rescue it from the perils of modernization and assimilation.

Everyone in the Temple seems more important for what they represent than for who they are. And practically every conversation, from the most strident political debate to the most banal wisecracking sitcom exchange, is fraught with meaning. For the American-born Jasmine, the social-climbing owner of the Temple, her business represents a chance to collect on her share of the American Dream. When a fancy modern hair salon opens up nearby, she thinks nothing of hiring a stylist from Vidal Sassoon to accommodate customers who don’t want the traditional braids for which the Temple has always been known. But for her Jamaican-born partner, the cancer-stricken Anile, it’s a betrayal of her heritage to move away from braiding toward hip 90s styles. She sees the acts of braiding and weaving as symbolic of the intertwining of people in the black community.

It’s evident from a program note that Gibson shares this compelling if somewhat overwrought idea. But she does her play a disservice when, over the course of more than two hours, she covers the same philosophical ground. Repetitively and none too subtly she drives home the conflict between assimilating to achieve success and maintaining traditional ways. There’s the comic scene in which a young hip-hopper who wants to look like Janet Jackson runs afoul of the braiders. There’s the palpable tension between the immigrant braiders Winnie, Tasha, and Kenu and the American-born modern stylist Simone. There’s the showdown between Nzinga, the wisecracking supplier who’s been selling hair-care products to the Temple for years, and the new stuck-up, high-dollar supplier from a white-owned company catering to the black community.

There’s Jasmine’s quandary over whether to give the plum assignment of a high-profile fashion show to her modern stylist or a braider. There’s the heated argument between Jasmine and the Senegalese Kenu, who accuses her of being a slave trader who’s sold out her employees and calls Tasha and Winnie Uncle Toms for continuing to work for Jasmine. And finally, repeating all of Gibson’s arguments but in far more blatant terms, there are two discussions near the end, one between the ailing Anile and Simone and the other between Anile and Jasmine.

When Jasmine and Anile have it out, both characters speak in implausible homilies. While Jasmine speaks of the allure of capitalism (“You have to take risks–go for the gold”), Anile endorses spiritual rather than material wealth (“I have begun to worry about your spirit, like you worry about my health”). In case you haven’t yet figured out where Gibson stands on this issue, the subsequent crash of thunder and arrival of spirit gods should remove all doubt.

Gibson’s tendency to telegraph the underlying meaning of the lines is particularly frustrating because when she’s writing just plain dialogue she’s quite good. Exchanges between the hair braiders before they get into the meat of their important speeches are razor sharp. Gibson is also astute when it comes to creating believable characters and relationships. But unlike August Wilson, she can’t mediate between her uncannily effective naturalistic dialogue and her desire to spice it up with lofty spiritual statements and surreal plot elements. Where Wilson can turn a realistic discussion of a ham or a piano into a profound statement on the need for self-worth and embracing one’s heritage, Gibson shifts ungracefully between the two worlds. Whenever her characters stop being people and become allegorical figures, the dialogue gets stilted and phony. And Gibson seems inexperienced at writing overlapping conversations between numerous characters, which almost always seem forced and lacking in rhythm.

Chuck Smith, directing the play’s Chicago premiere for ETA, further hampers The Temple with some questionable casting choices and stiff direction. Trying to compensate for gaps in the script, he has characters mime dialogue or flip through magazines when they’re not the focus of scenes (something he also did in his highly problematic production of Vivisections From the Blown Mind at Goodman Theatre). Although the Temple is supposed to be a successful hair salon, it seems no one ever does anything except read Essence, play with brushes, and hang out by the mirrors. Though Jasmine continually says “Let’s get to work,” the production has so little detail that one wonders what work she could possibly mean.

The character of Jasmine poses another problem. Although Felisha McNeal and TaRon Caveese Patton as Anile and Nzinga deliver dead-on, complex, intelligent portrayals, Lisa Jeffrey plays Jasmine with incredible falseness: her stilted line readings make the dialogue seem even more obvious. And some of the supporting characters in the salon seem to have been directed to play their parts broadly and cartoonishly. Sadly, this is a play rich with ideas that would have benefited from some subtlety somewhere along the line.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kenneth Simmons.