A reorganized, highly charged Lorraine Hansberry Theatre opened its 31st season in a new space with a thought-provoking, if not completely successful, program of two one-act plays — one a classic of black theater, one new.
Steven Anthony Jones — artistic director at the helm in the wake of the 2010 deaths of company co-founders Stanley E. Williams and Quentin Easter — directed both: Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 satire “Day of Absence” and Marcos Barbosa’s “Almost Nothing.”
The plays couldn’t be more different. The opener “Day of Absence” is a boisterous, loud, wacky and shrill look at one day in the life of a fictional Southern town in the 1960s in which all of the black people have disappeared.
“Almost Nothing” is a slow, quiet, meditative piece about how a couple deals with the fact that the husband killed a young boy whom they believe was about to rob them.
It’s easy to understand why “Day of Absence,” with black actors appearing in white face in minstrel-show style, caused a stir when it opened in the 1960s and how Ward, co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Company, was commenting on racial stereotyping in his with its depiction of silly, hysterical townsfolk who are helpless without happy-faced Negroes to do all of the work, much of it dirty.
Today, the disparity in socioeconomic status between blacks and white remains relevant. But other supposedly biting elements of the satire fall flat. With little character development. The show is like a series of disjointed sketches in which each person (from a couple who can’t handle their crying baby to the fast-talking mayor) seems more ridiculous than the last. Over-the-top, let-loose performances by the full cast and wildly colorful costumes add to the histrionics.
With its deliberate understatement, “Almost Nothing” is a dramatic contrast to “Day of Absence.” Rhonnie Washington as Antonio and Kathryn Tkel as Sara as the tight-lipped, evasive couple who buy their way out of personal responsibility aren’t as haunting, chilling or provocative as they could be.
Despite the uneven show, on opening night it was a pleasure to see Lorraine Hansberry in a new permanent space on Post Street and with a group of dedicated patrons devoted to continuing its three-decade mission to promote and present works by and about blacks and the black experience.
Day of Absence, Almost Nothing
Presented by Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
Where: 450 Post St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 20
Tickets: $43 to $53
Contact: (415) 474-8800, www.lhtsf.org