First produced at London’s Royal National Theater in 2003, the American premiere of “Elmina’s Kitchen” at Baltimore’s Center Stage has a familiar yet unfamiliar setting in its favor. The hard luck stories told here by black residents of London’s so-called “Murder Mile” Hackney neighborhood have at least general cultural connections to those told by their socioeconomic counterparts in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh. The “Kitchen” is well worth a visit, even if somewhat fuzzy characterization and rather mechanical plot complications make the highly dramatic climax less emotionally devastating than it should be. Similarly, the overall production, while uniformly well-acted, is sometimes awkwardly blocked and paced.
Listening to several black men exchange lyrically profane stories in a comfortably shabby urban restaurant feels like a Wilson play. The characters’ edgy jokes, unresolved personal squabbles and philosophical feuds about cultural identity seem likely to boil over after cooking for a couple hours. Not only does this seem like typical Wilson fare, but director Marion McClinton and most of the actors list Wilson plays among their credits.
The characters in British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah’s drama have strong West Indian accents, however, and the restaurant is in London. Kwei-Armah’s writerly voice echoes Wilson, but fortunately he has enough things of his own to say to survive the comparison.
The titular restaurant is run by Deli (Curtis McClarin), a former boxer and ex-con trying his best to be a good citizen, who has named it for his late mother; Elmina also was the name of a slave-trading outpost on the west coast of Africa.
Deli’s daily worries go beyond the lack of customers. His disrespectful 19-year-old son, Ashley (LeRoy McClain), seems determined to become the disciple of a criminal, Digger (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), who hangs out at the restaurant; and Deli’s long-estranged father, Clifton (Sullivan Walker), shows up to a less than enthusiastic welcome. Also filling seats are Anastasia (Yvette Ganier), a newly hired female cook, herself quite spicy; and BayGee (Ernest Perry Jr.), an old guy withthe gift of gab.
The playwright deftly deals out delayed exposition, making the aud wonder how all these characters are connected and where the action is likely to lead.
Kwei-Armah does an especially nice job with the relationship between Deli and Anastasia, keeping us unsure whether their spirited exchanges will take an amorous turn. He’s less secure developing the relationship between Deli and Ashley, and the fragmentary biographical treatment is the main reason why the final father-son fireworks are not sufficiently explosive. Also a bit disappointing are speak-of-the-devil entrances so conveniently timed that one imagines the characters poised outside the restaurant door awaiting their cues.
Although the actors can’t entirely compensate for such lapses in the script, it’s an appealing cast topped by McClarin’s moving expression of Deli’s aspiration and frustration. Also noteworthy is how well Byrd uses his angular body to express the ease with which Digger springs from repose into dangerous action.
Much less smooth is McClinton’s direction, which suffers from uneven pacingand clumsy blocking.
Neil Patel’s realistic set and the social palette represented by David Burdick’s costumes boost the tech quality. The reality of this setting is never in doubt.