Jar the Floor
at the New Repertory Theatre
through October 24
When four generations of a Black family congregate for the great-grandmother's 90th birthday in Cheryl West's new play, Jar the Floor, they experience more than just celebration. They argue and argue and argue, making the occasion touching and hilarious.
The play attacks every current issue head on, but it deals with such issues as if they were quite naturally part of any family's history. Treatment of the aged, parent-child relationships, therapy, politics, senility, Blackness, gayness, economics, education, abuse, dreams, gender, humor, sex--the play is a veritable catalog of contemporary matters, a tapestry of American family life. Amidst all the tensions, the clearest one developed is that of mother-daughter relationships.
There are only five characters, all women, all mothers or daughters or both: MaDear (Raffini), the not-so-senile great-grandmother who provides some of the funniest lines of the play, despite continual rantings about the "man," her decesased husband and the past; Lola (Valerie Stephens), the grandmother, preoccupied with the many men in her life; Maydee (Diane Beckett) the mother, a middle-class academic waiting for a tenure offer; Maydee's daughter Vennie (Valerie Stephens), who has just dropped out of college and wants to be a singer; and Raisa (Ethelyn Friend), Vennie's white "best friend," who plays the observer to the family squabbles.
Some of their tension lies in differences of class; Maydee constantly corrects her daughter on her use of double negatives, and uses words which Lola complains she does not understand. When she says that Maydee is "teaching Black people how to be Black," Maydee coldly responds that she teaches Afro-American Studies and Political Science.
A large part of the generational tension lies in reactions to sex and sexuality. Maydee claims that she does not want or need a man, deriding Lola for always running after a "gigolo." Lola, never afraid to speak her mind, answers scornfully to Maydee that "a blanket's cuddly if you wrap it the right way." But the humor of their words cannot be contained in any of the many one-liners, but in the whole, in the interaction of all five players on stage.
Despite the static setting (in one room in Maydee's house), the play moves fast, covering so much ground that its single location only gives the plot greater emotional intensity. The interaction between family members, although very particular to the four Black women, achieves a powerful universality.
The superb acting of the older women gives the play its drive. Raffini's portrayal of an old woman with a heavy past subtly stresses the wise sayings among her senile ramblings. Stephens' energy on stage and the ease with which she says her lines make her role incredibly convincing. Maydee, as the center of the generations, holds up her end as a bridge of resentment, making the serious scenes seem poignant rather than trivial.
The play only breaks down with the members of the younger generation, who, as lesser characters in a play that focuses a lot on the past, seem somewhat stereotypical. Friend, as the sensitive hippie, seems somewhat obtrusive at times.
After a second act filled with anger and shouting between all possible permutations of mothers and daughters, the play comes together with MaDear's yells of "Jar the Floor, Jar the Floor." The players drum on the floor in unison, showing family ties deeper than the tension.