Does theatre have a pilot season? It's 1986 and black matriarch Anne Jackson (Teressa Taylor), strong yet rich in humor, has inherited a house in Park Circle, a planned—i.e., white flight—community. When she and her two children, gangsta poseur Rodney (Jarreau James) and irrepressibly ethnic Jimmy (Christopher Richardson) move in, high jinks ensue. And just wait until boyfriend Earl Jefferson (Rico E. Anderson) shows up with his wardrobe of Mother Africa costumes (Joan Francis) and back-to-Africa speechifying, punctuated with a sternum thump and a raised fist. Won't whitey take notice, and how!
Each time the doorbell rings, another stereotype walks into the oddly constructed living room (Nathaniel Bellamy has designed a space with the front door at the apparent back of the house and next to an interior staircase that would need to be a fire pole to clear the door frame). Uh-oh, misunderstandings dead ahead. Teenage neighbor Kim (Melinda Lively) finally stops by, only to ask Rodney for dance steps. Kim's meddling mother Betty (Amy Hayes) shows her true colors when she "helps" by landscaping the Jackson lawn when it falls below community standards. And, oh, how we chortle when Jimmy teaches little David (Alex Sanders) to breakdance in that adorable yet awkward way that white people have! Add their liberal dad (Darrell Phillip), mix in a bigoted old white man (Ken Zavayna) and a black man who works, but does not precisely live, in the community (Bob Wilson, who, I kid you not, is forced to say, "I bes' be gettin' along," when his character takes his leave), and count the endless minutes until writer Barbara White Morgan dares foist off the line, "I can feel the pain of the Park Circle mentality."
Taylor does a fine job of holding this ridiculous show together. She almost makes us forget that as much as her character talks about holding down two jobs to be able to afford the house, we see her going to or coming from work only once in the whole two-and-a-half-hour production. She has the chops to rise above the script even when it veers into UPN territory. May I just hint at the comic potential of going to a white hairdresser who has never worked on black hair? She is surrounded, however, by actors trapped in caricatures, a situation director Roy Fegan does nothing to ameliorate. His tonal approach is equally unsubtle; heightened emotion is consistently indicated by having every actor yell as loudly as possible. Mind you, the man sitting next to me was loving it, rubbing his hands in anticipatory glee when the kids would get sassy ("He's gonna get it!") and, at the final family hug, wiping tears from his eyes. I just wanted to poke mine out.
"An American Tract," presented by Towne Street Theatre at the Raven Playhouse, 5233 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Nov. 15-Dec. 15. (213) 624-4796.