Whispers Want to Holler, ETA Creative Arts Foundation. Playwright Marta Effinger raises an interesting question in this piece about a woman planning to sell her property: what do we owe the past? And she embodies the question in a powerful pageant of African-American history. But the play's dramatic structure is as rickety as the lattice representing Olive Cross's antiques store.
The play takes place the day Olive buries her son, which is also--a bit too coincidentally--the day she plans to hand over the deed to a developer. Effinger's opposition to gentrification seems less heartfelt than mechanical, a device to tie together the disparate historical characters--ghosts whose possessions, for sale in the store, are threatened by its closing. More damning, Olive's decision seems trivial compared to their vivid tales. An elegant plot twist is wasted on this low-stakes conflict. There's also something troubling about Effinger's ready condemnation of Olive's choice: didn't her forebears sacrifice to assure just such freedom?
Director Runako Jahi has directed Carolyn Nelson to scream all of Olive's lines, and her pivotal cry--"I don't owe anybody! Somebody owes me!"--nearly gets lost in the din. The strongest performances come from the two youngest cast members, Renata Sago as Olive's neighbor Little Sallie Walker (equal parts annoying, touching, and terrifying but always worth watching) and Michael Cordero as Pupil, programmed to be "a credit to the race." Meanwhile Makeba Ayo Pace makes the experience of Washerwoman, lynched during reconstruction, unforgettable.