ETA Creative Arts Foundation

Productions praised as “ensemble pieces” generally seem pressed from the same mold. They are typically loud, energetic, and raucous, with a lot of people running around and yelling. Such work can be thrilling, but more often than not it’s just boring.

It would have been easy to do a high-energy Harvest the Frost, a tumultuous family drama. Instead, ETA’s production, directed by Woodie King Jr., is subtle, intelligent, restrained, and deeply felt. All of the eight actors, some of whom appear onstage in only one or two scenes, understand the style of the play so well that it seems as if they must have lived, eaten, and slept together for the last 20 years. This is ensemble work that requires more skill than brawn.

Set in Detroit in 1982, the play presents an African American family on the point of collapse. Renson (Darryl Alan Reed), the patriarch of the family and a man of endless compassion and pride, is trying to accept the fact that his wife Nancy (Cynthia Maddox) suddenly left him a year ago. His cynical father, Grandpa Early (Al Boswell), spouts nonsense about a woman’s duty to serve her man. Renson’s son Ray (Oba William King) returned from Vietnam a psychotic, alcoholic mess, and his daughter Tracey (Elizabeth Shivers) is married to a man who apparently abuses her. His eldest son, Kwame (Donn Carl Harper), tries his best to reconcile everyone’s differences, while his youngest son, John (Victor Wells), simply stares at his family in bewilderment, likening them to a bad dream.

In synopsis Harvest the Frost sounds bleak, depressing, and excruciatingly serious. But the beauty of the script is its abundance of humor. Nubia Kai doesn’t simply glue on comic relief like so many other contemporary playwrights–jokes that are simply vain attempts to lighten a heavy load. Her characters are so recognizably human that we can’t help but laugh when we see them sporting their greatest failings like expensive suits.

They all desperately defend the roles they’ve been assigned in the family–Tracey’s the caretaker, Ray’s the weakling–even though they feel trapped by these roles. And all of them seem to feel ashamed that they’re not a “perfect family.” Instead of admitting their own frailties, they seem to believe that if they just try hard enough they can become the people the family needs them to be. This is most powerfully dramatized in Ray, who’s spectacularly portrayed by King (in fact, the entire cast, which also includes Dalvalie Friend, is spectacular). Ray, who always lived in the shadow of his older and more athletic brother, went to fight in Vietnam simply to prove to his father that he was a man, and his tragic inability to equate manhood with anything other than power and violence ultimately destroys him.

Kai’s play is concerned fundamentally with the question of manhood, particularly as it’s defined in black culture (making King’s program note calling this play “feminist” rather curious). Renson becomes the pivotal figure because he’s struggling to accept a new self-definition–to, as he puts it, “love without condition.” In other hands Renson’s journey might have been politically correct, but Kai gave it all of the humor and pathos she applied to the rest of her play.

Only in the final scene, when Nancy returns to help out during a family emergency, does the play seem to lose its cohesion. Instead of exploring the tension between Nancy and Renson, the scene has Nancy championing the cause of dispirited young black men everywhere. This not only robs the audience of the chance to get to know Nancy, but also shifts the focus away from the family. Given that the family clearly serves as a microcosm of black cultural and political life, this sudden overt politicization of the play is unnecessary.

This play is more illustrative than dramatic. Kai chose to have her characters explain their relationships to each other and to the audience, instead of letting us see the relationships develop. And she doesn’t have her characters approach the breaking point–they’re already there. It’s extremely difficult to make this kind of play vital and engaging, which makes ETA’s success all the more impressive.