BWW Review: IMMINENTLY YOURS at The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc.
The tragicomedy Imminently Yours buoys some historically heavy subject matter with a contemporary lift, giving voice to the experience of multiple generations of African-Americans who thrive in a contradictory space where secrecy and support are both critical to survival.
In the playbill notes for Imminently Yours, the playwright Karimah contextualizes complacency, challenges complicity, and reminds us of the wisdom to be gained from taking the time to listen to and heed the stories of elders: "who are we?/how does a community, a neighborhood, a society, a civilization just vanish?/change is universal/many cultures are lost, when we are separated from our homelands, neighborhoods, families and freedoms/eminent domain, gentrification, war, replacement, job loss, poverty, death, natural disasters, arson, government takeovers, redlining, purging, abandonment, lies, slavery?/we depend upon the memory keepers to share verbally or record accurate descriptions/of what once was/what was once mine, is now yours?"
In this 90-minute show directed by Count Stovall, an intergenerational ensemble of people of color and their relatives face socio/philosophical issues experienced as descendants of American slaves. Currently resisting expropriation of their inherited properties, they maintain a collective optimism in the face of eminent domain. This comes across as both admirable and amusing, and in counterpoise to any singular victim status. They squabble with one another, but they remain steadfastly connected to each other, too. Stovall refers to the play as "a tale of familial relationships, elders, and the historical traditions that bind us together...economic and political shenanigans create turmoil and a mysterious question of 'Who will survive?"
To help answer that question, let's meet the elders. Alberta (Edythe Jason), Oscar (Arthur French), and Lillie Mae (Dorothi Fox) comprise an ornery trio of multi-lingual citizens of the South who co-exist peacefully in a small hamlet of shacks. These "simple" structures also serve as a façade for a luxury home community that is hidden nearby by a massive green wall of poison ivy.
The elders' banter has a bite; Karmiah's dialogue has a naturalistic style that includes digs, jabs, and some clever code-switching between everyday conversation, "hick speak" and French as the situation demands. The trilingual elders work on a plan to receive just compensation for what's at stake: losing their homes and village rights. This is in contrast to their previous non-plan: live unobtrusively "under the radar," steering clear of all but invited visitors, and greeting uninvited visitors with shotguns.
One of the familial visitors is Edna (Colette Bryce), a descendant/attorney who is not exactly fond of her youthful summers spent in the village. Trouble erupts when her millennial daughter, Mildred (Nia Akilah Robinson), accidentally divulges more information in the wrong community crowd than is necessary.
James (Ryan Desaulniers), a representative from the governor's office soon visits, and a flurry of official eminent domain activity begins. Most of this conflict happens not during scenes but between them, which tended to make the situation seem less ominous or dire and the scenes less connected.
The two-act play offers up elements of a timely and relevant history lesson about the implications and ethics of what constitutes just compensation in a post-slavery society, particularly in light of millennial heirs who may not be as engaged as their ancestors.
Not that people like James makes doing business any easier. Somehow he has enough charm about him to attract the interest of Mildred, despite tone-deaf comments like this:
JAMES: "The Governor promised his constituency that he would visit every neighborhood in the state if he were elected. Until about a month ago he thought he had fulfilled his promise. Then, I told him about your tribe, I mean, your clan, or, or, what do you call yourselves?
LILLIE MAE: "People."
Exchanges like these elicited a range of groans, laughs and sighs from the audience, me included. What appears to be a clarification from an elder goes much deeper.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the preview performance I attended on June 18th, with a starting time delayed for an hour, was not quite a full production. Neither the sound nor digital projections functioned properly, so the wall of poison ivy that would typically help define stage space and add to the aura of a green barrier of secrecy was minimized. Music and sound effects were primarily static. Also, two actors read from hand-held scripts. Although their "being on book" didn't sabotage the overall performance, it did negatively impact the show's cohesive effectiveness. Several times, the visual impaired status of the character of Lillie Mae is leveraged for situational comic effect; her reading from a script created a distracting incongruency.
In summary, although some of the magic of the play got lost in technical translation, Imminently Yours conjures up plenty of entertaining elder moments:
OSCAR: "You did a brilliant job of overcoming your fear, Lillie Mae."
LILLIE MAE: "It was when I discovered how sensitive my hand had become. When I discovered how much fun I could have identifying people. When I realized the new freedom I found when a body would just stand there and let my fingers roam all over . . ."
ALBERTA: "Enough! We get the image. Now I just want to get it out of my head."
This is the kind of production that snaps to attention when the elders are in charge.
Tickets are available here.
Photo Credit: Quinn Calcote