BWW Review: HAPPY ENDING at Anacostia Playhouse
The admirable goal of the All About the Drama theater group is to reproduce classics of African-American theater. Its second production currently at the Anacostia Playhouse is from Douglas Turner Ward, co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Company.
And he had a long running off-Broadway hit in the mid-60s when his "Day of Absence," a story of a Southern town's plight when its black people suddenly disappeared, in part because the cast of color performed it in whiteface.
Originally, when "Day of Absence" was paired with another of his one-acts, "Happy Ending," Ward said years later, he almost had a heart attack, possibly because he thought it was a minor sketch. "I had no intention of it ever being done."
Essentially a play about two maids who have been let go by a wealthy couple because they were divorcing, "Happy Ending" stands alone in the current All About the Drama production.
As if to fill out the time in the one-act, director and company co-founder Ella Davis, comes out with a preamble, extolling the talents of the cast and encouraging the audience to "focus your mind back to the 1950s."
That could have been accomplished through a glimpse of the aquamarine blue appliances in the period Harlem set by P. Precious Porter.
Even more unnecessary is a stilted filmed prequel "A Day in the Life of Vi & Elle - Meet the Harrisons," a video in which what is already very clear in the play is acted out as if no one would otherwise understand that the couple is being divorced and the maids are being let go.
Once we are finally introduced to the flesh and blood Ellie and Vi - Jennifer Lee and Krinessa Pinkett respectively - they almost have the personality and verve to carry the proceedings, extravagantly weeping for much of the time, not just because of job loss, but because it's an end to the minor pilfering they've also been committing if only to approach a living standard.
At this point that a flashy nephew who had been razzing them for their tears (Greg Watkins) joins them in their extreme bathos. It's all played so broadly that any underlying themes of class and racial differences that Ward may have intended are obscured.
What's more, Davis' intent to be everything to everyone results in augmenting the historical script by adding song and dance. The maids singing Dinah Washington's "What a Difference a Day Makes" leads to Watkins doing original gospel-tinged songs by Marion Johnson. It makes for an odd tonal change for reasons that may also be to further fill out an evening where "Day of Absence" is indeed absent.
Running time: About 70 minutes, no intermission.
Photo credit: Krinessa Pinket and Jennifer Lee in "Happy Ending." Photo by Jabari Jefferson.
"Happy Ending" continues through Aug. 25 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE. Tickets online.