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Shades of Black

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Cut Flowers

Chicago Theatre Company

What playwright August Wilson does for over-the-hill black male characters, too old and too beaten down to pick themselves up, Minneapolis-based playwright-actor-composer Gavin Lawrence does for young black men who still have hope--often just barely--in Cut Flowers.

There's always been an appetite--at least among African-Americans--for entertainment that reflects the authentic experience of everyday black people. That hunger is too infrequently sated. Cut Flowers, directed by Chicago Theatre Company artistic director Douglas Alan-Mann, is a Sunday dinner. It acknowledges the heterogeneity of personalities, tastes, and experiences in the African-American community and presents black characters with all their contradictions intact.

Lawrence's stint working in a flower shop in the late 80s inspired the play's setting: the back room of Benson's, a large white-owned floral business. The play covers a single day in the life of six black men who work in close quarters, invisible to the white customers and clerks out front, preparing fresh flowers for display. The flowers must be cut upon arrival--otherwise they die quickly. Cutting gives them new life. And the men's cutting away of secrets and inhibitions ultimately regenerates them as well. Each has suffered some sort of heartbreak, which opens a door and reveals a skeleton.

The shop's 40-ish assistant manager, Kyle (Anthony LeMay), is the elder statesman--a man with aspirations and the script's moral center. He listens to 70s soft rock on the radio while presiding over his young crew, who have a talent for zeroing in on one another's most sensitive spots and roving off on far-flung topics. Their debates range from the origin of myths about black male sexuality to which flowers create the "stankest" bucket water. And there's a hilarious riff on black men's alleged distaste for oral sex.

Kevin (Anthony Fleming III), a black militant who's presumably the playwright's alter ego, can't seem to explain why a college graduate like himself is content to philosophize in the back of a flower shop instead of helping the community. Killjoy Kevin dampens the pleasure the men take in razzing each other by digressing into somber baritone lectures on black history, prompting the protest, "No more slavery today, I thought we'd been emancipated."

Paul (Lionel Gentle) is a soft-spoken alcoholic, and Mark (Tory O. Davis) is a man who refuses to hit back when his wife beats on him. Brian (Terrance Watts) is the hardest worker and the only man whose secrets are considered off-limits. We never see Rhonda (Tiffany Addison)--the switchboard operator with a "third eye"--but she blasts pronouncements over the shop's intercom system like a petulant Olympian goddess. She cares deeply for the men but is clear about her boundaries.

As Ronnie--the play's exuberant comic heart--23-year-old Columbia College student Ronnel Taylor steals the show. His elastic features, inexhaustible energy, and undeniable star quality give this puckish provocateur, a married ladies' man who loves his children, the kind of vitality that dominates a production. In fairness to the six other excellent performances, Taylor does have the best lines. And he runs with them.

There are a few false notes in the script: Kyle "spontaneously" delivers monologues that are as deliberate and practiced as any Jesse Jackson sermon. But these moments are few in a play that otherwise offers a rare and textured portrait of working-class black men. Devon Love designed the realistic set, and Henry Hampton Floral in the South Loop provides the flowers for each show--a striking element of the stage picture.

Cut Flowers demonstrates that it's possible to laugh about race without the kind of gratuitous revisionism on display in the hit movie Barbershop. Rosa Parks's name hasn't been mentioned in most black barbershops in decades. What can be heard is incessant discussion of the trials of living in an overwhelmingly white environment. On that topic Barbershop is silent, sanitized, and safe. Its essentially conservative message--that the hagiography of black leaders is misdirected and that petty criminals like Rodney King don't deserve civil liberties--is conveyed through the mouths of blacks, making it palatable to the broadest possible audience.

In contrast to this slap on the wrist to African-Americans, Cut Flowers extends a hand. Lawrence recognizably presents the challenges faced by each character with humor and compassion and provides a credible conclusion without a windfall resolution. No happy hallelujah chorus sings at the end of this long day. Cut Flowers is real and true, poignant and bittersweet, respectful of the men in the story. Who knew that such a funny, honest representation could be found in a back room with the carnations? We were all looking in the barbershop.

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