The world premiere of two new one-act plays — “White Lilies” by renowned African-American author Walter Mosley and “The Talk” by the lauded, multi-award-winning African-American playwright France-Luce Benson — are interesting, if not equally admirable. Although they are not precisely connected by theme or subject, they are both observant of the degrees of disconnect within the family unit.
In “The Talk” we meet attractive, middle-aged Haitian-American Manu (Chantal Jean-Pierre) alone in her bedroom. She seems a bit anxious and more than little nervous as she takes a quick peek at the gift she has just purchased for herself. Recently widowed, she checks out her sagging breasts and her derriere in the mirror as she decides to have a talk with her 34-year-old daughter, Claire (Shashone Lambert), who, in her childhood bedroom, has been packing her suitcase. Somewhat of a prodigal, the noticeably uptight Claire is cutting short her visit with her affectionate if also officious mother. The needy Manu, however, hopes that Claire has grown weary of traveling and will stay at home until she is married, as is the custom in her old-world Haitian culture.
Despite her seven years earning an MFA in Eastern Philosophy from Smith College, Claire has avoided coming home so not to have to explain herself, her life, or more specifically her sexuality. At first, Claire is resistant and even hostile to Manu’s awkward attempts to forge an alliance with her. Manu tries everything she can to persuade her daughter to stay with her, even asking her, in a very touching and funny scene, to give a lesson in Yoga, a discipline that Claire apparently teaches wherever she goes. It would be a spoiler to mention the gift that Manu wants to show Claire and what she hopes can be accomplished now that she has no husband.
Manu’s tendency to prod Claire about her personal life, as well as her willingness to share her own feelings (“I’ve never had a sense of completion”) on the subject of sex serves as the core of this rib tickling (and more) comedy. Though “The Talk” begins lethargically as we watch Manu and Claire during their protracted alone time, it quickly responds, under Sibusiso Mamba’s direction, to the vibrant interplay of the Haitian accented, warmly aggressive Jean-Pierre and the frisky but defensive Lambert.
“The Talk” hits its stride as the two women attempt to break through years of miscommunication and missed opportunities to really see and appreciate each other. Benson, a life-time member of the Ensemble Studio Theater, a two-time Schubert Fellow, and the winner of the Lorraine Hansberry Award for her play “Fati’s Last Dance,” has a sharp ear for comically-infused confrontations and keeps this tough and tender meeting of kind hearts and disparate minds bright and saucy.
In “White Lilies” Mosley frames his drama with magic realism, as the ghost of a wretched man who has just died is deployed to unsettle the mind of his anything-but-grief-stricken wife. Raymond “Mouse” Alexander (Landon G. Woodson) is the good-for-nothing, not so dearly departed husband who comes downstairs from the bedroom soon after he has died to romantically taunt his wife EttaMae (Bridgid Coulter). Presumably comforted by her sister Sophie (Chantal Jean-Pierre), with whom Raymond has had a long standing affair, EttaMae is also upset by the expressions of love expressed for the father by their son LaMarque (Ruffin Prentiss). Ruffin gets to chew the scenery as he lashes out at EttaMae, whom he blames for Raymond’s disintegration as a husband and father.
Raymond, it seems, has barely spent any time at home over the years but preferred whoring and drinking to marriage. Except for the minor effort EttaMae puts into speaking slightly above a whisper and also cooking meat and collard greens in the kitchen, she is not about to put any extra effort either into burial plans for the man she thoroughly detests. It seems that Raymond has been rescued from a flop house and brought back to his Houston home to die by Sophie without EttaMae’s permission. EttaMae is even more distressed to have to listen to Raymond’s coughs and convulsions while LaMarque reads to him portions of the bible.
Of course, no one except EttaMae sees the ghost of Raymond come downstairs nattily dressed. He slowly approaches EttaMae saying sweetly as he fondles her, “I came to make up and say goodbye,” a line that gets the best laugh of the evening. One might wish that Mosley, who has penned more than 37 critically-acclaimed books, had gone the distance and had more fun with his outrageous plot. As it is, we have to endure this virtually dead-on-arrival play that is acted without much conviction, under the otherwise earnest direction of Marshall Jones III, who is making his directorial debut.
The modest and serviceable scenic design for both plays is by A Ram Kim. New plays developed at this award-winning theater are always an adventure and well worth a visit. However, for something even close to theatrical magic and realism, we have to look back to “The Talk.”
“White Lilies” and “The Talk,” Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., through Sunday, May 19. $50. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.