Almost 40 years after M Ensemble's latest show premiered off-Broadway, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men still offers a powerfully rich portrayal of a disenfranchised African-American family in crisis. But Lonne Elder III's classic tale also projects such a clichéd, outdated, and stereotypical image of black men that it begs the question: What do we gain from its revival?
The play is set in a dingy, empty barbershop and its adjoining back room in Harlem during the Fifties. The cast of seven is led by the gregarious Jerry Maple, Jr., as patriarch Russell Parker. While the jobless, aging father daydreams of his lost youth, his two no-account sons thieve and loaf. Daughter Adele the lone female and the provider toils in a dead-end office job with hands-on-hips defiance.
The men's struggle for survival ultimately leads them to smooth-talking con man Mr. Blue Haven played appropriately sinister yet charismatic by Herman McGloun and a career in bootlegging and racketeering. Although the foolish yet lovable characters are at times inconsistent and their motives questionable, the entertaining players shift with polished ease between Elder's often intense narrative and hilariously comical interludes, delivered mainly by Keith Wade as William Jenkins.
But the tragedy that befalls the troupe, staged in a harrowing curtain line, falls oddly flat.
Following its original release, critics labeled Ceremonies an instant classic, largely because it wove the era's most prevalent issues into the plot. Although most of the principal conflicts may no longer be relevant, others, such as the integral role of the family, remain as significant as they were four decades ago.