Classic plays provide an important element in examining history and appreciating great dramatic art. The problem with classics is that they must be done well in order to stand up to all that significant history, or not at all. ETA‘s riveting series, “Resurrected Works and Reclaimed Music,” mines African American theater classics, connecting them to the blues cannon for an enriching look at the breadth and depth of black art as a whole. It’s a heady task that falls short with a meandering production of Lonnie Elder III’s “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men.” “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” is a seminal drama that traces an African American family’s struggle for self worth and self respect in late 60s Harlem. The play set the tone for the Black Arts Movement where the black experience was the focus and the drama’s mix of stark social reality laced with humor would influence writers for decades to come. Unfortunately, very little of the play’s historical significance is readily apparent, because it’s mired by poor direction and pedestrian acting.
The story follows the trials of the Parker family: the dad, (Amos Ellis) who’s a former vaudeville tap dancer half-heartedly running a rundown barber shop, sons Theo (Parrish Morgan) a shiftless dreamer and Bobby (Reginald Simmons) a small time thief and daughter Adele, (Ebony Joy) who has taken over her mother’s role in supporting the unemployed men in her family. The tale of how the clan rides a downward spiral lead by Blue Haven (Robert Hardaway) a criminal using a “decolonization society” as a front, should be a tightly wound interplay of desperation and cultural pride but all of the actors except for Joy and Glen Harston as Mr. Parker’s best friend Mr. Jenkins, flounder without strong direction. Director Vaun Monroe may have been too reverential to the material to provide enough structure so the story unfolds excruciatingly slow, with lackluster pacing. Although the set design and lighting are effective, the best thing about the production is the music. From Big Mama Thornton’s rousing original rendition of “Hound Dog” at the beginning, to Nina Simone’s dramatic cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” in the second act, the musical expressions of the blues managed to say everything that the play did not.