WHEN Through 10/14: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM
WHERE Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green
Set in the London borough of Hackney--which has a large black population and one of the highest crime rates in the city--Kwame Kwei-Armah's often brutally funny 2003 Elmina's Kitchen is more than a darkly comic family drama. Questions of authenticity permeate the play, from the proper way to prepare West Indian cuisine to how to be a man: do authority and power come from being on the right or the wrong side of the law?
It's delivered by a highly watchable cast in this midwest premiere by Congo Square Theatre, directed by Derrick Sanders. The Caribbean accents are a departure for the company, which has focused on African-American playwrights for most of its eight years, notably August Wilson. But in British actor and writer Kwei-Armah they've found a playwright whose gift for street poetry and feeling for intergenerational conflict is in sync with their own acting skills. The play doesn't break a lot of new thematic ground, but by tackling an internationally known script--by a writer who's new to Chicago--Congo Square raises its national profile, and aside from a few slack moments, Sanders and his cast succeed at keeping us engaged.
From the beginning of Elmina's Kitchen there's a hint of Wilson's love of African ritual and his steadfast focus on the repercussions of slavery. The wordless prologue is delivered by a white-clad female dancer adorned in a traditional headdress--but whether it's a blessing, exorcism, or something else isn't clear. Meanwhile a spotlight shines on a photo of Elmina--the deceased founder of the dingy restaurant of the title--who has the same name as a Ghanaian port town once devoted to the slave trade.
Elmina's son, Deli, now runs the struggling establishment as tribute to his hardworking mother, who raised him and his brother, Dougie, when their father, Clifton, returned to Grenada. Deli is an ex-con and failed boxer (hanging next to Elmina's picture is the famous poster of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston in the ring, one model of black male heroism). Deli tries to keep his 19-year-old son, Ashley, away from the bad influences of Hackney's "murder mile," especially after the incarcerated Dougie is killed on his last day in prison. But Deli can't keep local mob enforcer Digger (a smoldering Morocco Omari) from hanging out at his restaurant like a malevolent shadow. Nor can Deli turn away his father (a crafty Cedric Young) when the old man shows up for Dougie's funeral and makes himself at home with his estranged son.
Ashley wants to do business with Digger, but the older man brushes him aside as too green and too disrespectful of his dad. "You can't just walk into dis bad man t'ing, you gotta learn the whole science of it. You step into that arena and you better be able to dance wid death til it mek you dizzy," Digger tells Ashley. But things change when Anastasia, a new waitress with her eye on Deli, begins coaxing him to update the place. That means discouraging Digger from hanging out and making the menu more accessible to non-West Indians by offering items like plantain burgers (even though Clifton observes that "fast and West Indian is a contradiction in terms"). The more Deli shuts Digger out, the more Ashley gravitates toward Hackney's "yardie" culture.
A tentative romance grows between Anastasia (splendidly fiery in Ann Joseph's performance) and Deli, bruised by his divorce from Ashley's mother. But the real love story should be the one between Deli and Ashley, and that's where Kwei-Armah's script falters. He doesn't provide enough of their history for us to understand where the son's rage is coming from. And in Phillip James Brannon's performance, Ashley's anger feels more like garden-variety teen petulance than incipient thuggishness. Also Deli, played by Anthony Irons, isn't the spineless doormat his son thinks he is: less volatile than Digger, he's capable of a slow-burning anger. (Irons seemed a little uncertain in his early scenes, but that was probably attributable to finding the right rhythms with a difficult accent.)
Things improve in the second act, when the conflicts between Deli and his son and Deli and his father heat up. The beleaguered restaurant owner becomes increasingly sympathetic, and there are a few horrifying white-knuckle moments. By the end, Kwei-Armah has delivered some harsh insights into the difficulty of being true to your values in a pitiless environment where doing the right thing often means not getting what you want.