Bold, fast and funny, ‘Plantation!’ is worth a visit at Lookingglass Theatre
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“If y’all could change something in the world,” asks the sincere, well-meaning, wealthy, Christian matriarch Lillian of her three grown daughters, “what would it be?”
The sentiment is genuine, and meaningful. And in Kevin Douglas’ fiercely funny if still-unpolished satirical farce “Plantation!,” it leads to comic chaos.
Lillian, played by the always spot-on Janet Ulrich Brooks, plans to make reparations for the sins of her forebears by giving away her enormous Texas estate. All of it, she has decided, will immediately go to descendants of Sarah, a slave who had a sexual relationship with the family’s great-great-grandfather George, whose portrait dominates the elegant living room (designed by Courtney O’Neill) where the goings-on go on.
When: Through April 22
Where: Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan
Run time: 1 hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission
And to complicate matters – a whole lot! – Lillian has invited three women, long-lost cousins born and raised in Chicago, to the home for the weekend for the big reveal and festivities.
Lilian’s spoiled daughters, brimming with privilege and led by the not-so-bright but oh-so-willful oldest sister Kimberly (Louise Lamson), spend barely a moment contemplating the good they’d like to do. They spend the rest of the boldly entertaining 95-minute work figuring out how to keep what they see as theirs.
This high-concept premise has some genius in it, and playwright Douglas has already shown he can handle complex topics of race and history with his stylish musical dramedy about a mixed-race Vaudevillian team, “Thaddeus and Slocum,” which premiered at Lookingglass in 2016 and remains among the best new works to emerge from Chicago theaters in the last several years.
And indeed, thanks to a surplus of sharp one-liners and an expert, all-women ensemble directed fluidly by David Schwimmer of “Friends” fame, the proceedings produce some ideal moments of ultra-edgy hilarity. There’s the moment when Sydney (Ericka Ratcliff), the Black Lives Matter activist and deeply untalented poet, points out that the portrait of great-great-grandfather George has slaves picking cotton in the background. (Stunned, Lillian and her daughters comically gather to look a lot more closely at a painting that has been there their entire lives.) Or when Sydney’s sex and selfie-obsessed sister Madison (Tamberla Perry, with exact timing) makes a quick U-turn to avoid having to listen to her sister’s righteous poetry, a beat of both familial humor and commentary about our tolerance for political art. Or when their serious sister London (Lily Mojekwu) realizes what they mean by describing her behavior toward her new white relatives as “extra.” Or when they all explain to the weepy Kara (Linsey Page Morton) how annoying “white girl tears” can be. And then there’s almost every moment involving Diana (played with just the right level of perturbed patience by Hannah Gomez), who, filling in as housekeeper while her mother visits family in Guatemala, must endure indignities from residents and visitors alike.
Indeed, as satire, “Plantation!” works. It pokes an awful lot of fun at social stereotypes (mostly by portraying rather than undercutting them), and provides a conflict of cultures that captures plenty of misunderstandings that dig fairly and funnily at our society’s racial divide.
But there are flaws. It does over-rely on Kimberly’s stupidity to drive the action. Racism — of the conscious or latent variety — and stupidity correlate, no doubt, but stupidity is the easier way out and makes for a lot of happenings that we can never for a second believe will play out as she imagines.
That makes it difficult for the farce aspects of the play to work. “Plantation!” leads up to a climactic sequence of physical comedy — of the multiple chases, doors opening-and-closing variety. It doesn’t work. It’s too big a space – precise physical mayhem requires more confinement. More importantly, Douglas just hasn’t prepared sufficient set-up to wreak the level of convincing confusion farce demands.
“Plantation!” in the end most feels like an exceptionally good extended comedy sketch, which also happens to be Douglas’ aesthetic background. It can be, and hopefully will be more.
That said, even in its current form this production is bold, fast and funny, boasts quality performances aplenty, and succeeds in taking on a topic that couldn’t be more sensitive with just the right level of artful insensitivity.
Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.