Entertainment » Theatre

On Strivers Row

by Brooke Pierce
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday May 31, 2017
On Strivers Row

The Metropolitan Playhouse is dedicated to exploring America's past by unearthing lesser-known works from our country's theatrical history. Their latest production, "On Strivers Row," was written in 1940 by African-American writer Abram Hill and takes us to the heart of Harlem, where class, romance, and modern mores collide at a debutante's party.

Set entirely in a room in the Van Striven's beautiful big home on Striver's Row (the nickname for a pair of Harlem streets that the neighborhood's most elite once called home), the play takes place over the course of the day when the family is throwing a lavish party for their 18-year-old Cobina (Al-nisa Petty). Her mother Dolly (Kim Yancey-Moore) hopes to get Cobina hitched to the judge's stuffed-shirt son Ed (Adrian Baidoo), but the young lady already has her sights set on someone else: the ambitious Chuck (Anthony T. Goss).

A biting comedy chock full of witty one-liners and quick repartee, "On Striver's Row" has a colorful cast of characters. There is the Van Striven's mouthy maid Sophie (DeAnna Supplee), the family's thoughtful and learned lodger Hennypest (Lawrence Winslow), sly and stuck-up Tillie Petunia (Lauren Marissa Smith), charming friend-of-the-family Lily Livingston (Christina D. Eskridge), and Dolly's shrewd mother Mrs. Pace (Marie Louise Guinier), to name a few.

But those people have nothing on the trio who eventually barge into the party and threaten to create a gossip column catastrophe for the class-conscious family. Against Dolly's will, her husband Oscar (Charles Anthony Burks) invites a newly-wealthy former cook named Ruby Jackson (Linda Kuriloff), and Ruby brings along a pair of loud and proud party animals, Beulah (Madelynn Poulson) and Joe (SJ Hannah). The presence of these unrefined guests -- particularly Joe, who constantly speaks in rhyme -- nearly sends Dolly over the edge.

Under Timothy Johnson's fine direction, the many members of the play's large ensemble shine. Although not all of the script's clever zingers have the impact that they likely would have 75 years ago, the cast delivers them with aplomb. A special nod to Guinier, who can do wonders with a disapproving look as Mrs. Pace; Kuriloff, as the sweetly out-of-her-element Ruby; and Hannah, who finds the vulnerability in the bombastic Joe.

One of the greatest delights of "On Strivers Row" is that it offers some insight into various attitudes of the day. Dolly wants to live the high-class dream, while her husband is far more practical about money matters, and her daughter wants to break out of her well-bred prison.

Ruby wants to leave her working class days behind her and be accepted into society, but the cynical Sophie doesn't seek the approval of rich folks at all (even when she's relying on them for her paycheck). Chuck is hard-working and educated, even if he's not part of the Van Striven's world, and in him, we can see the future of a respectable middle class where it's more about what you do and how you are than what kind of family you come from.

There are a number of dramatists whose works from that 1930s and early '40s era still survive to tell us what the smart set was thinking then, but Noel Coward and Moss & Hart don't necessarily have a lot to offer about the black experience.

Given his penchant for sharp dialogue and deadpan wit, Abram Hill's writing actually makes one think of Coward, and "On Strivers Row" shows that black audiences were every bit as interested in laughing at the elites as they struggled with love, sex, money, family, and social-climbing in their highfalutin' world.

"On Strivers Row" runs through June 18 at the Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. 4th Street, NYC. For information or tickets, call 212-995 8410 or visit metropolitanplayhouse.org.

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.


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