The comedy Imminently Yours, written by the mononymous “Karimah” and staged by The Negro Ensemble Company, is largely about the importance to communities of honoring their “elders.” It’s appropriate, then, that two stalwarts of New York’s African-American theater—Dorothi Fox and Arthur French—have major roles in the production. Both of these actors have been plying their trade on New York City stages for decades (and they’ve done considerable screen work as well). The two hold their scripts onstage here and occasionally refer to them (or at least they did on the opening-night performance under review). This is moderately distracting at points—but the two are pros and, in a way, the production would have been poorer without their venerable presence.
The play, directed by Count Stovall, takes place in a mountain community in an unnamed Southern state. We meet three of the local elders—Lillie Mae (Fox), Oscar (French) and Alberta (Edythe Jason), all in their eighties or nineties. These characters represent notable families in the settlement, which was formed after the repeal of slavery. African-Americans were forbidden from living in the main town, which was built at a lower elevation, and instead took to higher ground.
Another of the community’s matriarchs, a woman named Virginia, is not seen throughout the play, as she is currently in a rehabilitation facility. But Virginia’s daughter Edna (Colette Bryce) is on hand, along with her own daughter, Mildred (Nia Akilah Robinson). As a girl, Edna had found life in the community isolating and boring. She escaped to an urban world and became an attorney. However, the adventurous Mildred doesn’t mind being in the rural setting.
Into the community steps a young man named James (Ryan Desaulniers), an aide to the state’s governor (who had himself planned on making a visit to the settlement that day). There is an instant mutual attraction between James and Mildred, and she eventually reveals to him some things about the community that the others have kept quiet. She first shows him the simple hut-like buildings where outsiders believe the mountain people live. Then, donning a rubber glove and drawing back a “curtain” made of poison ivy, she reveals a spectacular hidden lake surrounded by gorgeous homes: the real abodes of Lillie Mae, Oscar, and the others. The existence of the curtain, and what lies behind it, brings some magical or whimsical notes to the proceedings, giving the play a fable-like quality.
Unfortunately, word gets out about the hidden paradise, and soon the government wants to seize the mountain property through the power of eminent domain. This constitutes the play’s major conflict. (Should the play, in fact, be titled Eminently Yours?)
The “forced out of home” storyline may suggest Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but the play’s tone is broadly comic in a sitcomish kind of way. In fact, Lillie Mae, who is blind, displays the earthiness and audacity of The Golden Girls’ Sophia Petrillo. Much fuss is made over her salty language and her penchant for groping men inappropriately. A little of this goes a long way. While the play makes some serious observations about race and the elderly, they get rather buried at times in the comedic shtick. The actors do what they can with it. Jason as the often-ruffled Alberta and Bryce as the pragmatic Edna have just the right approach for this type of comedy.
The utilitarian set and lighting designs by Chris Cumberbatch and Melody A Beal, respectively, get upstaged by Michele Baldwin’s fine projection work, which depicts the grandeur behind the poison-ivy curtain. As for the costumes, they’re fine, but designer Katherine Robinson seems to have gone overboard with them. Does Mildred, for instance, really need five different outfits, however stylish?
On opening night, the action was rather jerky, with some long pauses during which the audience waited for the actors to make it to the stage. This may have been because of lengthy costume changes between scenes. One hopes the company can overcome these hitches and have smoother performances throughout the run.
Imminently Yours (through June 30, 2019)
The Negro Ensemble Company
Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 (OvationTix) or visit http://www.necinc.org
Running time: 90 minutes including one intermission