“What does he think he is? White or something?” This line, half serious and half a joke, delivered by a bombastic barber, hits a chord that resonates throughout eta Creative Arts Foundation’s current show.
Ceremonies in Dark Old Men was written in 1969 by playwright and screenwriter Lonne Elder III, enjoying long-running commercial success and a 1975 television adaptation. Ceremonies tells the story of a Harlem barber and his family struggling to stay afloat in the 1960s. And while there’s no such thing as a story of THE black experience, Ceremonies tells the story of this one. A black family, struggling to survive the changing face of their neighborhood, while struggling also to survive each other.
The barbershop’s owner, Mr. Russell Parker (Amos Ellis), struts around his turf telling stories of the old as a song and dance man on the vaudeville circuit. His sons Theo (Parrish Morgan) and Bobby (Reginald Simmons) loaf and laze about, drifting closer to a life of theft and bootlegging while their sister Adele (Ebony Joy) works to support the family. There’s Mr. Jenkins, a friend and customer of the family who sits quietly, listening to Russell’s tall tales and playing checkers. And then there’s Blue Haven (Robert “Gentleman Soul” Hardaway) who runs the local crime ring of numbers and whisky under the title of the Harlem Decolonization Association.This is a play about ceremonies rarely thought of, finely woven into a day indistinguishable from any other. Playing checkers, telling stories, drinking corn whisky, and hanging around the barbershop. More than that, Ceremonies also plunges deep into the shared experience of black masculinity; about dark old men who have insulated themselves from the constraints of a capitalist, racist culture and their sons who attempt to undermine the system through the numbers game, thieving raids, and bootlegging enterprise.
Ceremonies in Dark Old Men does not mean to show its audience how ritual and ceremony can build community and family. Instead, it ends up showing how ritualized acts can destroy.There’s a charged moment in the play, a strained and tense stand-off between all the male characters: Russell and his two sons, Blue Haven, and Mr. Jenkins, who wants to get out of Blue’s game. It’s a rare moment of silence as the characters cease talking for just a moment and the audience is left to reflect.
This moment between the men on stage foreshadows the final punctuation of tragedy. Russell, thinking he has just had the luckiest day of his life, finally winning a checkers match against Jenkins, realizes just how much he’s truly lost. For all of Russell’s showboating, high self-regard and monologuing (which come across as repetitive and a bit sad to the audience and characters alike), he ultimately cuts a tragic figure. Beneath his flashy suit and rusty dance moves, he’s left with little else but pride.
In a play like Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, the monologue is paramount. Russell, Blue, and Theo all deliver fantastic sermons of their experiences, polemics against white social and economic oppression, and desperate soliloquies about agency and independence. Though the dialogue of playwright Lonne Elder III feels less spitfire than an August Wilson drama (and more self-reflective), the bite of urgency still remains. The monologues of these men— Russell’s stories of his glory days and Blue’s tirade against his girlfriend’s proposal of marriage—are assertions of power.They are proclamations of independence: I exist, I matter, I am in control. In a place and time where so much is out of the control of these men, the power of speech is something that is never taken away from them.
As the only African American owned and managed theatre facility of its kind in Chicago (and with a mission to be a cultural resource institution for the preservation and perpetuation of the African American aesthetic), it’s hard to think of a play that is a better fit for eta Creative Arts. Ceremonies features a common, timeless story of family, while also exposing in stark relief the underbelly of the ultimately mythical American Dream of social and economic success.The characters in Ceremonies speak of reclamation, power, and a fierce pride in the self, which promises better days to come. Yet in this particular barbershop, such impassioned declarations of independence from these dark old men fall short. Ultimately, they change themselves, but not their circumstances.
eta Creative Arts, 7558 S. Chicago Avenue. Through December 23. Friday and Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3pm and 7pm. $30 general/$15 for students and seniors with ID. (773)752-3955. etacreativearts.org