ETA Creative Arts Foundation

Minority theater is getting harder and harder to define. Nobody wants to offend. And artists themselves seem to welcome the move toward the mainstream. How many interviews have you read where someone says, “I don’t want to be thought of as a [fill in the blank] artist; I’m an artist”?

Still, I find it ironic that a playwright who seems to be chiding the new black middle class for denying their cultural heritage would choose a white, European form to do this in.

Let’s face it, Loves Light in Flight, written and directed by Charles Michael Moore, is essentially a modern-day Restoration comedy a la Moliere or Congreve. It is full of delightful contrivances–amazingly opportune chance meetings, characters showing up at just the wrong place at just the wrong time, and, of course, so many secret shenanigans that we’re waiting to see who gets found out first.

Woven into the fabric of this form are some interesting societal observations. The romantic lead does some sighing about her children growing up as the only black children in sight. We see the damage done as a sort of contemporary African queen named Imani changes into a cold, corporate lawyer named Saundra. But these issues are minor threads in the tangled love knot that the characters work themselves into.

Perhaps Moore felt that audiences go to theater to be entertained, not to be confronted. And that may be the case. Whatever the reason, Moore has couched his social commentary in the time-honored, crowd-pleasing terms of love, sex, and cuckoldry.

The basic idea of Loves Light in Flight is that the aptly named Venus and handsome Halsted (played with both strength and warmth by Dalvalie Friend and Paul Mabon) meet and fall in love. There are, however, complications that the two must overcome, the most prominent obstacles being his lover and her husband and children.

Subplots abound. Halsted’s sister Burnetta (Martrice Edge) and Burnetta’s husband Leonard (Larry Venson) are each conducting some secret late-night mischief. Venus’s cousin Earl (Askia Bantu), nicknamed “the babymaker,” is carrying on with other women while the one he loves works things out at her mother’s house. The zany plot’s knot pulls tighter and tighter, until everyone comes together and everything explodes.

Naturally, it’s tons of fun. So much so that this was ETA’s most popular production last season. The script is a little long, and some parts are downright corny, but the whole thing is played so skillfully, and with such spirit, that it’s hard not to get sucked into it.

Martrice Edge, in particular, is a party all by herself as Burnetta. She peeks over refrigerator doors, flops on the couch in anticipatory ecstasy, and reels drunkenly home after hours. Yet for all that slapstick, she manages to endow her character with intelligence and horse sense.

Allen Edge does a fine job as Arthur, Venus’s prissy and arrogant husband, but he really shines in his smaller role as a hungry mechanic, more concerned with how many doughnuts are left than with who’s messing with the boss’s wife. Renee Lockett-Lawson has a voice that would freeze blood as the ball-breaking attorney girlfriend. The whole cast is very funny, and keeps the comedy coming at a fast pace.

But the most memorable moment in Loves Light in Flight is neither very funny nor particularly helpful in moving the plot ahead. Nor does it take place between Halsted and Venus, around whom the play revolves, but between Halsted and his former love, the lawyer.

Imani (or Saundra, as she is now known to everyone except Halsted) has come to Chicago from Saint Louis for the express purpose of bringing Halsted back home with her. She bullies him, but he will not go, and the two get into a discussion of what went wrong between them. Halsted keeps talking about what a beautiful African vision she was when they first met, with her wild hair, clothes, and spirit.

“Dammit Halsted,” she retorts. “When I was Imani, I made less than $10,000 a year for the two of us to live on. As Saundra, I make $53,000.”

And Halsted, cool as a cucumber, answers, “What would you do for $100,000?”

Not much else is said about the matter. Saundra becomes merely a humorous villainess, simply another obstacle for Venus and Halsted to overcome.

Yet for all of my laughter during the piece, that’s the moment that sticks with me.

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