IN MANHATTAN a bus ride can transport you through different worlds. There are no actual boundaries, but each section of town has its own culture. Of all the neighborhoods, Harlem can often treat its inhabitants the hardest. Ceremonies in Dark Old Men is a vignette about a Harlem family beset by the frustrations of being black in the city.
Russell Parker and his children live above their profitless one-throne barber shop. A worn-out, ex-vaudeville dancer, he passes the days playing checkers -- his ceremony with his old friend, Mr. Jenkins; Russell could never cut hair as well as he could dance. His daughter Adele supports the family by working at the dead-end Motor Vehicles job. Disgusted by the hard work that brought only physical and emotional exhaustion to the rest of the family, Russell's two sons decide to make their way in the world by converting the shop into a bootlegging joint. Pop goes along with the scheme for the chance to make some money and live again.
The intense power of Anthony J. LeGrand's production comes from his cast's energy and ability to act as a family. As the whiskey-making venture brings new problems that tear the family apart, their inter-relationships become the heart of the play. Gregory K. Jordan's performance as Russell provides a fine focus for the rest of the cast. Downtrodden from years of grinning widely and being patted on the head, he drags his feet in a shuffle. And yet he can rebound with astonishing strength and resolve. Jordan makes Russell an intricate blend of contradiction and sorrow, who sometimes acts foolishly and other times proves he is nobody's fool. The family's other members, played by Geogory Pennington, Michael R. Russell and Angela D. Lee, are comfortable with the old man, whose stories and fibs they know so well. Each recognizes and to an extent depends on the others' quirks and idiosyncracies; together they weave a delicate family structure.
While acting as a unit makes Ceremonies convincing, the actors' vitality gives the play impact. Certain scenes are exciting even when the written dialogue is mundane. In fact, the energy on stage often overcomes failings in the script. Many speeches seem forced -- the author's desired effect is sometimes so obvious and his method so heavy-handed that the lines can't sound anything but stilted.
The script is weakest by far in its characterization of Blue Haven, the racketeer who backs the Parkers' whiskey-making project. A one-time killer, he poses a direct threat to the family, for their business arrangement makes him their master. Blue should be detached, evil, and frightening, but his threats are simply deranged and anti-social. David Wilkins's awkward handling of his cane and sunglasses, ostensibly affected to make him cool and scary, only compounds the problem.
But the script's inadequacies don't detract much from Ceremonies's poignancy. Russell's elder son challenges Adele, who disapproves of the illicit whiskey business:
But, tell me, what else is there left for us to do. You tell me and I'll do it. You show me where I can go to spin the world around before it gets too late for someone like Mama living fifty years just to die on 126th Street! You tell me of a place where there are no old crippled vaudeville men.
The torture of having nowhere to turn to avoid wasting your life causes a hollowness that is in evidence almost everywhere. It is expressed in a single sentence found on a graffiti-covered wall of the set. One might find it chalked onto some subway door or billboard in the city: "I was here but I disappear."