When a drama revolves around an ambitious, volatile young African-American man who depends on money from his mom to jumpstart his scheme for success, comparisons must inevitably be drawn with the Earth Mother of such dramas, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Although Nichole Gause’s new play, Tribe, doesn’t insistently lean on Raisin for inspiration and guidance, it suffers most where it probably should have glanced at the classic to see how it’s done.
Compared with Hansberry’s matriarch, Lena Younger, Gause’s mother figure conspicuously lacks direction and purpose. In Tribe, Patrice is torn between three alternatives: besides lending a chunk of money to help her son Soleil become a partner in a tax prep business, she can spend it on an exotic vacation with her sister Angela, or she can plow it into a new home that her brother Jackie will gladly help her build. The tensions here are appropriate for a modern working woman who has saved her own hard-earned money, but Gause deflates that tension by endowing Patrice with enough savings to take up all three of her options. Worse, she takes her eye off the money that Soleil swipes from his mom.
Similar vagueness dogs the philosophical conflict that underpins Patrice’s reluctance to bankroll Soleil’s business venture. Soleil has steered his life clear from a criminal path by joining The Tribe and rising in its ranks. But the teachings of The Tribe contradict Mom’s Christian beliefs, and in his militant zealotry, Soleil views the organization as his true family, more so than his biological kin. Over the course of the evening, the frictions sparked by Soleil’s ambitions and his membership in The Tribe result in a dramatic rift between mother and Sun.
So most people who come to Duke Energy Theatre for the On Q Productions premiere will be expecting the climax of Tribe to stem from either Soleil’s audacious business scheme or his affiliation with the black empowerment organization. Instead, Gause tosses in a crisis late in Act 2 that has nothing to do with the core conflicts she has developed up to that point.
While her dramatic and thematic work is a muddle, Gause is very strong in her character depictions – and very keen in her grasp of family dynamics. Patrice has over-indulged Soleil in the past, and her tendency to make sacrifices and live vicariously through him has become twisted into a sense of parental ownership. Aunt and uncle are no less nuanced, for Angela is presuming to give parenting advice with a rather messy résumé of her own, and Jackie is spouting pieties from the perspectives of an absentee parent and a recovering alcoholic.
The only thing I can say against the On Q cast is that they may be giving Gause the false impression that, in writing believable characters, she has written a successful play. Nicole D. Watts eluded us in On Q’s previous presentation of a new script, entering Cellphone Blues during the second week of its run. But here, after a somewhat nervous start, Watts proves to be remarkably mercurial in the storm-tossed role of Patrice, negotiating some hairpin emotional turns as various kinfolk vie for her favor. LeShea Stukes, so deliciously crass and overbearing as Bully last fall in Q’s In the Blood, brings a more jovial brand of intimidation to her portrayal of Angela, sandwiched around a delightful sulking episode. Funnier still is Jermaine Nakia Lee as judgmental Uncle Jackie, yet his heartfelt confession of past failures is one of the evening’s high points.
Soleil is also believable, but despite all the energy Sultan Omar El-Amin pours into the young firebrand, his lack and shading and substance becomes progressively wearisome. Gause might have avoided some of Soleil’s repetitiveness if she had bothered to supply the cult he’s so loyal to with a cult figure. Instead of spouting a mentor’s teachings or a truly devastating Tribe critique of Patrice’s bourgeois lifestyle, Soleil keeps urging his mom to attend one of the meetings.
Some of the sangfroid and purposefulness that might have helped Soleil has been lavished upon his girlfriend Alesha, and Kecia Roberts makes her one calculating piece of work. Icicles form in her wake. The other Tribesmen are superficially contrasted, but Robert Isaac as the warm and friendly Logan and Michael Antonio Mittman as the grim and hostile Joshua do a fine job of making immaturity their common denominator.
Smaller details are sloppily done. Stuff started falling off the badly-built set last Thursday, earning Watts extra kudos for spontaneously dealing with a fallen painting – and broken glass – while hostessing a pivotal family gathering in Act 1. Similar nonchalant grace would have helped director Brian Daye in dealing with some of the static and inexperienced elements of Gause’s script. A few of the scenes are overlong, crying out for a trim, while others are so short that they seem better-tailored for cinema.
Daye’s consistently ungainly blocking often obliges the elder siblings to stand up – all three of them together! – carrying on their conversation as if they were at a party rather than at home. When they’re not going anywhere, it underscores the fact that the story isn’t either. On the other hand, some of the scene changes felt like they dragged on longer than the short mini-scenes that were being set up.
Gause was out in the audience on the same night that I attended, so it’s likely she noticed the many of the same practical problems I did. Her precise ear for dialogue encourages me to hope for such artistic sensitivity and insight. So there may be a rewrite going on at the same time I’m finishing this review, but I doubt Gause has any complaints about the fine cast who are continuing to perform at Spirit Square through this weekend. They are the one element of this On Q effort that is consistently on-target.