KPBS AIRDATE: March 30, 1994
“If you can’t get rid of the family skeleton,” George Bernard Shaw once said, “you may as well make it dance.”
Well, seems like that’s just what playwright Cheryl L. West has done. It’s not clear just how autobiographical “Jar the Floor” is, but West sure knows a helluva lot about mother-daughter relations.
There are five generations of African-American women represented in “Jar,” though only four are onstage (one appears only in an old photograph). The occasion is the 90th birthday of the matriarch, MaDear, a former farmgirl from Mississippi, who wafts in and out of her current reality, living in her granddaughter’s house in a suburb of Chicago.
The females of skipped generations always do better here, as they often do in life: grandmas and granddaughters get on a whole lot better than mothers and daughters. MaDear has always felt black and nappy and ugly, not at all as attractive as her daughter Lola, a woman who’s played upon her looks and sexuality to get by and raise her daughter, MayDee, a Ph.D. who has nothing but resentment for her mother and her daughter, Vennie, a slick, hip former English major who speaks Black dialect and sings in lesbian bars. As non-family foil, Vennie brings her good friend Raisa to the festivities, a young, divorced white woman who’s recently lost a breast to cancer.
There’s a truckload of pain, righteous anger and rancor on this stage — and an awful lot of humor, too. Each of these women is a character — with a capital K. But there’s something very real in each one’s sense of maternal abandonment. Like Raisa, we, as outsiders, can see the Big Picture, the lack of understanding, appreciation and acceptance from one generation to the next. And we get the aerial view of five generations of sexual or emotional abuse, much of which is revealed for the first time on this festive birthday occasion. West lays down race issues, and upward mobility issues, sex and gender issues, but mostly her play is about survival, and coming to terms with one’s past and one’s family. Making peace and moving on.
At one point, MayDee, the caustic, smiling, put-upon hostess, makes a plaintive plea, å la Rodney King, “Can we all try to get along — just for the day?” But it isn’t all that easy. “Bein’ your daughter hurts bad,” says young Vennie, and every other daughter on the stage knows just what she means.
There’s a fair amount of redundancy in the play, but the language is so rich, the themes so engrossing, the direction so taut and the performances so riveting, you barely notice any flaws. This is a very tight ensemble; Tazewell Thompson has directed “Jar the Floor” several times before, and each of the highly talented actresses has been in at least one of the other 12 productions of the play nationwide. In every case, the role fits as well as the costume. Playwright West has a lot to say, with no race or gender boundaries. Every audience member might walk away with a different message, but each would walk away thinking.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.