Plantation! uses a sitcom sensibility to explore the case for reparations | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Plantation! uses a sitcom sensibility to explore the case for reparations

The Lookingglass world premiere strives to be a very special episode.


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F ew genres stoke snobbery quite like the humble American sitcom. It's a pity how many viewers write off the format altogether, because for the last few years, the much-maligned art form has been doing much of the creative heavy lifting in reframing thorny social discussions as approachable, empathy-building entertainment as well as in telling stories by and of people of color.

That's true of single-camera shows like Black-ish, Insecure, Master of None, and Dear White People, and especially true of multicamera comedies likeThe Carmichael Show, Mom, Superior Donuts, and One Day at a Time, all of which marry familiar and sharp comedic tropes with impactful social commentary. As the A.V. Club's Erik Adams points out, "Very special episodes were a joke—now they're the whole sitcom."

Plantation! , Lookingglass ensemble member Kevin Douglas's all-female world premiere play, is, of course, a work of theater, but its rhythms, comedic beats, use of space, built-in sight gags, and quippy dialogue ride the same crest as this new wave of multicamera television comedies. It's directed by fellow company member David Schwimmer, himself a sitcom vet, who successfully employs a broad, primetime-style comedic sensibility throughout.

Two years a widow, Lillian (Janet Ulrich Brooks) does something she never could while her bigoted husband was alive: make a tangible, significant gift to the descendants of the slaves whose labor built her family's fortune and name. After tracking down three sisters from Chicago (Lily Mojekwu, Tamberla Perry, and Ericka Ratcliff)—the only remaining descendants of the slave her great-grandfather raped—Lillian offers them the family's ancestral plantation home in Texas as a form of reparation.

Incensed and motivated by a false sense of entitlement, Lillian's daughters (Louise Lamson, Linsey Page Morton, and Grace Smith) conspire to change their mother's mind, employing tactics ranging from Wile E. Coyote-type shenanigans to full-blown hate crimes. It's in the latter territory that the stylistic contradictions in Schwimmer's production get blurry, if not downright messy. A farcical climax involving makeshift Klan robes and a Benny Hill-style runaround, one of the more bizarre spectacles I've ever seen onstage, invokes more cricked necks than shocked guffaws or dropped jaws.

Likewise, during a period-costumed celebratory dinner, it's impossible to believe that the moment a personal assistant of Latinx heritage walks out of the kitchen in a slave costume, the three sisters wouldn't bolt back to Chicago.

But in the heated, tense, often blisteringly funny conversations that precede those misfires, Douglas hashes out a myriad of different attitudes and opinions about moving the concept of reparations from the intellectual abstract into knotty, emotionally precarious material reality. And to get folks to laugh while doing so—that's certainly something.   v


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