Blue” is a refreshing and enjoyable comedy about the travails of an upper-middle-class Southern black family coping with the rigors of excess. It also provides a delightful vehicle for actress Phylicia Rashad, who makes the most of the opportunity. The plot is absorbing and reasonably plausible, and the characters richly drawn in this new play from Charles Randolph-Wright.
A prosperous South Carolina family is enjoying the success of the family funeral business. While the father (Randall Shepperd) calls the shots on the job , the home front is unquestionably the domain of the mother (Rashad), a self-possessed princess and fierce meddler in all she surveys. When not out shopping, she is closely monitoring the lives and ambitions of two children as they cope with adolescence in the ’70s.
But mother’s overriding passion is the music of a golden-throated singer and stud named Blue Williams, to whose records she swoons at every opportunity. The songs are sung live by the accomplished vocalist Arnold McCuller, who steps onto the stage for the numbers and silently retreats when the music stops. Supposedly unseen by the characters, he is cast in a blue light, an effective touch from designer Michael Gilliam. Also effective is the character’s steadily increasing importance to the storyline, despite his limited presence.
While some of Randolph-Wright’s gags and situations bear the unmistakable feel of a TV sitcom, there’s enough of a twist here to carry it off. The characters are quirky, the story diverting. And, of course, it’s refreshing to see a black American family portrayed in theater in this light, busily enjoying childhood and intent on fulfilling their aspirations like anybody else. In the process, the author touches on some not-so-funny themes such as class cultures and infidelity, but he makes a concerted effort to inject warmth at every opportunity, and director Sheldon Epps maximizes them.
The proceedings are narrated by the second son, adroitly played by Brandon Troy McMickens as an impressionable youngster and Michael Wiggins as a sarcastic adult. Randolph-Wright has cleverly includes periodic interplay between the two as they react to mother’s antics and other events from different vantage points.
The acting is uniformly excellent in this Arena Stage production. Rashad is a delightfully impulsive package of opinions and pride. Shepperd’s father is the calming voice of restraint, while Howard W. Overshown is convincing as the older son who finesses mother’s diatribes but lacks her spirit. His platform shoes and Afro are an entertaining study in ’70s fashion (due credit to costume designer Debra Bauer). Messeret Stroman comes close to stealing the show as the zany girlfriend from the “other” part of town, who points out mother’s pretensions but eventually becomes her soul mate. And Jewell Robinson puts it all into wry perspective as the opinionated mother-in-law.
The music of Nona Hendryx is a sultry blend of soul and jazz that soars in the hands of crooner McCuller. It infuses the entire production with a touch of class.