at the Edgewater Theatre Center
Set in a Chicago high-rise apartment, Wrestlers looks and sounds like an early-70s sitcom. The two main characters are roommates just different enough to guarantee an argument whenever the story stalls (which it does with great regularity): Michelle is a “sexy mortician,” and Celeste is a less attractive, more down-to-earth “corporate maven.” Then there’s the kooky neighbor, in this case a lady wrestler named Luscious Leigh Leglocker, who never takes off her wrestling costume (complete with black and gold cape) and has a fondness for entering and exiting via the window.
Sylvia is the mousy friend whose minor personal problem will dominate this week’s episode. Actually, Sylvia has three minor problems–she just turned 30, she’s lost her job, and she’s still a virgin–all of which are handled with the characteristic glibness of TV.
Of course, sitcoms are designed to eat up 22 minutes or so of television time, and Wrestlers aspires to be a two-act drama. That means the play’s authors, Carlun June Lee and Doreatha Roberts Randolph, have had to extend their thin story with lots of aimless talk, plot digressions, long monologues that reveal nothing, and pointless gags–at one point Michelle gives Sylvia a coupon good for one free embalming.
Lee and Randolph are so intent on filling out their play that the fact that all the characters are African American hardly seems to matter. The moments when they bother to say something new are few and far between–they content themselves with two acts of meaningless chatter capped by ten minutes of sanctimonious talk about the importance of safe sex.
Which is a shame, because the world of single, urban, upwardly aspiring African American women remains largely unexplored in American theater. In fact, Wrestlers is most interesting in those few sadly brief moments when it communicates uniquely African American attitudes, fears, and opinions, as when Michelle and Celeste argue whether Celeste’s boyfriend has left her for a “white chick” or for a woman who is, as Celeste insists in a vain attempt to save her self-esteem, “mixed.”
Such a joke speaks volumes about race relations in general and Celeste’s wounded feelings in particular. A play full of such jokes would have been powerful indeed. Instead, Lee and Randolph give us a play that, with a little judicious editing, could as easily have been about white women in Minneapolis or Japanese women in Tokyo. Maybe the playwrights thought it would be enough to indicate that their characters are African American for all the cliches to be magically transformed. But they were wrong.
Director Bellary Darden and her cast of four fine actresses have worked double time to give these flat characters the illusion of depth. In particular, Rolanda Brigham as Michelle and Diane White as Celeste so perfectly capture the body language and distinctive speaking styles of the African American middle class that the play’s mostly African American audience roared with laughter at everything the two said and did.
According to press materials, Chameleon Productions aspires to “expand, enhance and challenge the current image of women of varying ethnic/racial backgrounds.” Admirable goals, if perhaps a little vague and contradictory. But I can’t for the life of me see how a play as old-fashioned, flat-footed, and banal as Wrestlers in any way advances this cause.