Pappy is shadowboxing by the dining room table with Son, when daughter Tanya says, “You know Mama don’t like no play boxing in her house.” In Mama at Twilight, staged by the Lower Bottom Playaz, everyone refers to Mama—and Mama defers to everyone.
A leisurely paced storytelling play, alternating scenes of family life with monologues, troubled or reflective, by each of the quintet of characters, all under the lush trees in the backyard Sister Thea Bowman Theater a few blocks from West Oakland BART, Mama at Twilight explores the effects of what’s left unsaid in a house where everybody’s always talking, asserting themselves—except the hub of everything said and unspoken, Mama.
“It’s a love story about family,” said company founder Ayodele Nzinga, who wrote and directed Mama at Twilight. “About how essence comes through in a time of catastrophe, when everybody in the family unit can feel something awful happening—that sloughing off of skin, a kind of implosion before cohesion that has to be experienced.”
There are a few reversals of the way things usually get portrayed in African-American society and domestic life. Mama (Vinetta Hunia Bradley) is a preacher’s daughter, drawn to the wild, street-smitten hustler Pappy (Adimu Madyun) from the time they meet, barely adolescent.
Pappy’s been a kind of lowlife legend; “Larger than life ... He took all the air out when he walked in the room,” one of their kids remembers. “Like the circus, everybody always has a good time. But he was always leaving. When I was little, my time was divided between waiting for Pappy to go away—and waiting for him to come back.”
We see just a little of Pappy’s rowdy, exultant behavior, or feel it simmering sometimes, under his skin. But mostly there’s the sense of his overwhelming frustration, of self-disgust, but a grim determination not to go back to prison, to see it through with his family and the wife he loves at the center of it, “until the wheels come off.”
Adimu Madyun does a good job communicating Pappy’s character: thwarted, yet trying to sort it all out and come through. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, yet mirroring the same contradictions, is his daughter, well portrayed by Tatiana Monet. “She’s the best of them, the best of Mama and Pappy,” Nzinga said, “But in danger of becoming very bitter, a woman with no trust.”
“I want to share my life,” Tanya, who’s split between interning with a dance company and taking up the slack around the house, soliloquizes, “not sacrifice it.”
The two young men of the family seem to be opposites, but each reflects the family in his own way: Son (Mario, Junior—Pappy’s name is Mario—played by Stanley Doeboy Hunt, with both brashness and a searching quality)—is an aspiring photographer and his father’s kid, but looking at his father, both man’s man on the street and a church-going working stiff for the family, it’s like looking at “two people; which one am I supposed to be like?”
Kris, on the other hand, is the writer who doesn’t show what he writes, and doesn’t say much, his diffidence like his mother’s. His character’s formed by his resistance to his father’s kind of masculinity, as Nzinga pointed out, but like Pappy, he’s always leaving. “I’d like to go to Paris, like Baldwin, or Richard Wright. Maybe I wouldn’t fit in there, either.”
“I’m my father’s oldest son and he can’t see me. Nobody sees me. But I see them. Maybe if they start to see me, I could see myself.” A touch of Ralph Ellison amid references to Wright and Baldwin? “I’m big on intertextual connections,” Nzinga said, and of Koran Streets Jenkins, who portrays Kris with sensitivity, she mentions that he was the only one able to take on the role without embellishing, communicating Kris in all his troubled complexity.
“The first things Mario gave Kristopher were stolen.” Vineeta Hunia Bradley’s Mama is the most quietly reflective of all, somewhat wistful, hopeful, but maybe the most quietly troubled as well, knowing she’s the real pillar of the household, wondering what will happen if she’s not there, as she always was when Pappy was “away.” From the start, she carries on with grace, while under the weather—a cold that just won’t go away ...
After the show, Nzinga genially and expertly leads a discussion from the audience, often calling on neighborhood people and other spectators by name, eliciting questions and conveying them to the thoughtful performers onstage. “It would be almost irresponsible not to have a debriefing!” she said. “This is always a conversation, talking to people about themes the community doesn’t have any kind of resolution with: what churches do and don’t do; what the penal system costs the black community; the interfaces with the medical system, attitudes towards homosexuality, towards AIDS ... the community knows what the statistics are, but are still too terrified to test, to talk.”
Nzinga continued: “I’m always talking about black people, to black people, but I know I’ve done a good job when it transcends the community, when people outside the community recognize something familiar in the play. I look for symbols; the entire play is in the dining room, except for the monologues in the backyard. Everybody in this play needs to—and does—transform, even in death. At the end, when Kris comes in, Pappy instructs Son to close the door, not with Kris having left, but this time, all inside.”
Like the way Pappy says grace: “Bless the food on the table and the people in the chairs.” Or as Mama finishes the blessing at the start of it all, giving thanks, and asking for “the heart to continue.”
MAMA AT TWILIGHT:
DEATH BY LOVE
Presented by Lower Bottom Playaz at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 23 at the Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater, 920 Peralta St.. $10-$20. 208-1912.