F
ew genres stoke snobbery quite like the humble American sitcom. It’s a pity
how many viewers write off the format altogether, because for the last few
years, the much-maligned art form has been doing much of the creative heavy
lifting in reframing thorny social discussions as approachable,
empathy-building entertainment as well as in telling stories by and of
people of color.

That’s true of single-camera shows like Black-ish, Insecure, Master of None, and Dear White People,
and especially true of multicamera comedies likeThe Carmichael Show, Mom, Superior Donuts, and One Day at a Time, all of which marry familiar and sharp comedic
tropes with impactful social commentary. As the A.V. Club’s Erik Adams
points out, “Very special episodes were a joke—now they’re the whole
sitcom.”

Plantation!
, Lookingglass ensemble member Kevin Douglas’s all-female world premiere
play, is, of course, a work of theater, but its rhythms, comedic beats, use
of space, built-in sight gags, and quippy dialogue ride the same crest as
this new wave of multicamera television comedies. It’s directed by fellow
company member David Schwimmer, himself a sitcom vet, who successfully
employs a broad, primetime-style comedic sensibility throughout.

Two years a widow, Lillian (Janet Ulrich Brooks) does something she never
could while her bigoted husband was alive: make a tangible, significant
gift to the descendants of the slaves whose labor built her family’s
fortune and name. After tracking down three sisters from Chicago (Lily
Mojekwu, Tamberla Perry, and Ericka Ratcliff)—the only remaining
descendants of the slave her great-grandfather raped—Lillian offers them
the family’s ancestral plantation home in Texas as a form of reparation.

Incensed and motivated by a false sense of entitlement, Lillian’s daughters
(Louise Lamson, Linsey Page Morton, and Grace Smith) conspire to change
their mother’s mind, employing tactics ranging from Wile E. Coyote-type
shenanigans to full-blown hate crimes. It’s in the latter territory that
the stylistic contradictions in Schwimmer’s production get blurry, if not
downright messy. A farcical climax involving makeshift Klan robes and a
Benny Hill-style runaround, one of the more bizarre spectacles I’ve ever
seen onstage, invokes more cricked necks than shocked guffaws or dropped
jaws.

Likewise, during a period-costumed celebratory dinner, it’s impossible to
believe that the moment a personal assistant of Latinx heritage walks out
of the kitchen in a slave costume, the three sisters wouldn’t bolt back to
Chicago.

But in the heated, tense, often blisteringly funny conversations that
precede those misfires, Douglas hashes out a myriad of different attitudes
and opinions about moving the concept of reparations from the intellectual
abstract into knotty, emotionally precarious material reality. And to get
folks to laugh while doing so—that’s certainly something.   v