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Theatre in Review: Sweet (National Black Theatre)

Renika Williams. Photo: Peter Cooper.

Sweet takes place in the summers of 1968 and '69, when the world was, in many ways, being turned upside down. All of that remains offstage, however. A war is raging, students are taking over deans' offices, and cities are burning, but in Junervy, "an all-back town in Western Kansas" (as the program tells us), three characters are trapped in a triangle so obvious you could plot it with a protractor.

In part, Sweet is a tale of two sisters, Nina and Retha, in their late teens/early twenties, a distinct pair of temperamental opposites. Retha, who runs a laundry business out of the family home, is cheerful and dutiful, a smile pasted on her face and an upbeat turn of phrase always at the ready. Nina is idle, edgy, and more than a little boy-crazy. Watching them, you may wonder why they are so formally dressed -- in black -- especially as Retha is busily hanging out the wash; it takes some time before you realize that their mother is dead and they are getting ready to attend her funeral. One of the oddities of Sweet is that, for a pair of ladies who (we are told) were so tied to their mother -- they apparently had different fathers, both of whom are out of the picture -- they are surprisingly un-grief-stricken.

Enter George, who lives nearby and who has been their friend since childhood. George, who was the town's high school football hero and an exemplary student, has just graduated from Columbia and has a job offer from a newspaper in Chicago. Nina thinks he is a mighty fine young man and will try just about anything to get his attention, but her too-obvious ploys prove more alarming than alluring. Her efforts are doomed, anyway, because George only has eyes for Retha. But, despite their obvious mutual attraction, Retha is bound to her home and sister above all else. Nina feels no such compunction, however, and by the end of the first act, she and George are running off to find a little romance on a hot summer's day.

This single sexual encounter turns out exactly as the nuns who taught me warned it would: Nina immediately gets pregnant. George marries Nina, abandons his career in journalism, and gets local work as a farmhand. They move in with Retha, an arrangement that guarantees that all three will be permanently on edge. After that, it's only a matter of time for all three to work out their destinies.

The most striking thing about the characters in Sweet is how they exist outside of history. Although the radio pipes in pop tunes of the era and we occasionally hear about the outside world, such events hardly intrude on their lives. Civil rights are not discussed. George has somehow missed the student demonstrations at Columbia. All three characters share a remarkable lack of sexual experience. There's nothing wrong with not focusing on any of these issues, but if you make that choice, you should deliver something less clichéd and predictable than what is on offer here. The long first act takes its sweet time establishing the characters, yet never gets to the bottom of why Retha, who is clearly attracted to George, so constantly fends him off. (Both sisters clearly had complicated relationships with their late mother, which are never explored.) It's apparent early on that Nina is a selfish no-account and it's easy to become impatient waiting for Retha to catch up on this point. George's decision to sleep with Nina is so rash and ill-conceived that you're surprised warning bells aren't sounded. It's also never clear why, since Nina is so desperate to get out of town, she and George don't head off to Chicago and that newspaper job. The rushed second act pretty much dispenses with psychology altogether in order to set up a sort-of happy ending.

Sweet might have been much harder to take but for the fact that it coasts on the talents of W. Tré Davis (George), Maechi Aharanwa (Retha), and Renika Williams (Nina). Davis' sly, sideways attempts at courting Retha are loaded with charm; he also does very nicely by a long monologue in which he describes his daily life with Nina and meditates on all that he threw away in order to do right by her. Aharanwa is a sunny, beguiling presence, and her one moment of surrender to passion is startlingly convincing. Williams amuses at first -- she greets George by picking him up and keeping him in a stranglehold -- but transitions convincingly into bitterness over being stuck with marriage and motherhood too early.

In addition to getting such easy, breezy performances from her cast, Raelle Myrick-Hodges' designers work fairly ingeniously with the National Black Theatre's inordinately wide stage to create the world of Junervy. Matthew McAdon's set frames the action in laundry lines, making room for a porch with a swing where passes can be made. The walls are painted with a mural depicting maps of the stars set against what looks like blue stained glass. There are numerous Mason jars scattered about the set, filled with (I think) LED tape to suggest the presence of fireflies, one of Xavier Pierce's nice lighting touches. Given the fact that Retha insists on everyone wearing mourning for a year, the costume designer, Ari Fulton, is limited in her palate, but she dresses all three characters attractively and in period. Justin Hicks' sound design includes a variety of pop tunes between scenes (including "In Other Words" and the theme from the film A Man and a Woman), plus many time-frame-setting radio broadcasts and incidental (but important) effects, such as cries from George and Nina's infant son.

The press materials for Sweet indicate that the National Black Theatre conceived this production as a safe space away from today's racial tumult. According to a release, "It comes at a time when we all could use a quiet moment to consider what's important to our own lives and to maybe think about making our joy a priority." Fair enough, but such an entertainment should be more stimulating than this. Sweet is as lazy and aimless as a hot summer's day; it will pass the time in not-unpleasant fashion, but that's about all. -- David Barbour


(14 November 2016)

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