Samm-Art Williams is a Tony-nominated writer for his 1980 play (and personal favorite of mine) Home. The August Wilson Center for African American Culture's theater initiative, after a bumpy beginning, seems to be moving toward surer ground; it's created an ensemble company and brought in Pittsburgh theatrical genius Mark Clayton Southers to oversee it.
So when the latter chose to present a world premiere by the former, I saw nothing but blue skies ahead.
And that, dear children, is why I have these dreadful bags under my eyes. We can get our hopes up, but the theater gods just laugh and laugh.
The play, Last of the Line, concerns a once-proud Southern family started by Zebediah and Cornelia Jameson, two free blacks in the Civil War era. But there's trouble in the present day: Older brother and sister Alfonso and Clara have produced only female children, and their younger brother, a wastrel named Gabriel, is the last of the Jameson line. So everybody better do something quick or else the name dies here.
Williams, I must say, sees a lot more drama in the situation than I do, and has come up with two hours and 20 minutes of stasis. He's written a cliché-ridden slavery-days story for Zeb and Cornelia, and crafted contemporary scenes almost free of drama. There's page after page of exposition; characters repeat lines, thoughts and feelings; and we get people talking to nobody endlessly. You see, Zeb and Cornelia are not only characters in the play. Huge portraits of them hang in the living room, and their headstones are part of the graveyard set … so whatever momentum this play has, which isn't a lot, disappears so actors can have long, agitated monologues addressed to props.
As Gabe, Montae Russell has so little variation to act that he, understandably, pushes everything to make it bigger than it is. Brenda Marks and Kevin Brown try to squeeze as much theatrical juice as they can from Clara and Alfonso, but it's a losing battle. It's left to Bria Walker, playing an attorney from a planet where logic hasn't been invented yet, to offer some very welcome underplaying.
LAST OF THE LINE continues through Sun., Oct. 9. August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-338-8742 or www.AugustWilsonCenter.org