The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company's Theatre Festival in Black and White matches four one-acts by black playwrights with white directors, and four plays by white playwrights with black directors. The festival consists of two programs, staged in rotation.
Program A. As a devoted follower of the Theatre Festival in Black and White, I should probably say that the opening-night production of this program just wasn't ready for an audience. Technically the thing's a jumble, with interminable scene changes and no design aesthetic; the event feels patched-together and thrown up on a wing and a prayer.
On stage, things were only marginally better. The big problem is the large number of actors who clearly don't know their lines. The four plays of Program A often stop dead, wind backward and then restart, or are hop-skipped through until the actor lands on the missing lines.
This was the case with "Mr. Ding Dong Daddy" -- a cute skit by Jamal Williams about an elderly lothario and the daughter of one of his romantic conquests. Williams is a funny writer, director John Gresh is more than up to the job, and you'd figure that the cast -- Don Marshall and Jennifer Chervenick -- could handle it handily. But the line and cue problems are enormous and, naturally, the piece suffers.
F.J. Hartland's "Cake Without Frosting" is on more solid ground. Two sisters, who hate each other like poison, come together for a surprising birthday celebration; what impresses most is Hartland's refusal to offer the feel-good ending any other playwright would have. The two-woman cast (unfortunately, the program doesn't give their names) makes a strong, evenly-matched pair.
Lynne Conners' "Two Steel Workers" is an imagined conversation between a Duquesne Works steelworker circa 1982 and Andrew Carnegie before the 1892 Homestead Steel strike. Leslie "Ezra" Smith gives the role of the steelworker a welcomed note of depth.
As for Erick Irvis' "Sympathy for a Vampire," I have nothing to say except, maybe, "Better luck next time."
Program B. Each year's festival offers at least one real keeper, and Program B's anchor holds as securely as any I recall. "A Question of Taste," by Andrew Ade, is set in an unnamed sub-Saharan African nation, in the cell of a political prisoner who's the longtime food-taster for the dictatorial president. Into his cell is thrown a battered young man -- a newly captured militia rebel who discovers there is much more to the phlegmatic older man than he thought.
Ade, who teaches at Westminster College, has constructed a riveting one-room epic about politics and disillusion, told in achingly human terms. The production, smartly directed by Jeannine Foster McKelvia, is marred by excessively dim lighting. But with precise, passionate performances by Ben Blakey as the prisoner and, as the firebrand, rising star Joshua Reese (who also shone in the title role in PPTCO's recent James McBride), it hardly matters. It's a must-see.
The other three one-acts succeed to varying degrees. "Out of Focus," by France Luce-Besson, depicts two Catholic school kids, a boy and a girl, struggling through preconceptions about each other and themselves; directed by Lisa Ann Goldsmith, it's sweet, simple and nicely done. James Michael Shoberg's "Play It Out" is a very dark comedy about torture; though slickly staged by co-directors Carter Redwood and Damien Lee, it feels a little too pleased reveling in its misogynistic transgressions. Rage Stevenson's "The Only Good Artist Is a Dead One" begins promisingly, James Wong directing weird-cabaret diva Phat Man Dee in a flamboyant turn as a terminally ill and underappreciated artist. But witty wordplay notwithstanding, the play is staged awkwardly (one character spends most of her stage time doing nothing) and dissolves into self-righteous ranting.
"A Question of Taste," meanwhile, is an hour long -- about half the program. But it's worth every minute, as well as the price of admission.
The Theatre Festival in Black and White continues through Sun., Oct. 28. 412-288-0358 or www.pghplaywrights.com