First, the good news: Kenneth M. Ellis has built a beautiful set for Kuntu Repertory Theatre Co.'s Good Black Don't Crack. Stage right, we see a prim living room, tastefully painted and decorated. Stage left, an intimate studio apartment. Towering above, a fully functional café, with a bar, tables, stools and the restaurant's name stenciled on the front window.
Also, Teri Bridgett plays an energetic, Bible-toting Christian woman, the kind of holy, holy, holy Baptist who can turn ordinary conversation into a tent revival. As Sister Louise, Bridgett makes some warm and hilarious cameos.
Now the bad news: Good Black Don't Crack is outlandishly boring. We respect the late Rob Penny for all his work in the Pittsburgh theater, for his activism and dedication to African-American arts. But his 1974 play about a single mother and her relationships is only a plodding, mind-numbing, two-and-a-half hour melodrama. Too many scenes, too little accomplished. The language travels from dull to pornographic. The audience struggles to tune in, or even to stay awake.
Big picture: Kuntu Theatre needs a makeover. Its routine of under-rehearsed, awkwardly staged plays is getting tiresome, if only because we expect more from Pittsburgh's oldest existing African-American company. New Horizon and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre have become dependable incubators for black (and white) artists, each growing and improving, experimenting and innovating, while Kuntu consistently falls flat.
Rob Penny wrote better plays, and every actor in this production has performed better work. It isn't a matter of resources: The volunteers at Kuntu hand out color programs; an enormous billboard on Forbes Avenue now advertises Good Black Don't Crack. Kuntu issues contracts and generously pays its actors. Vernell A. Lillie, the company's artistic director (and director of this show) is a brilliant and resilient woman. Why, then, can't the actors memorize their lines? Why can't the audience hear them past the fourth row? Why do we silently groan when the lights come up on yet another endless scene? What, exactly, is the problem?
One problem may be Kuntu's space: Performing passionate plays with complex language and wicked one-liners is hard in a cavernous, sound-absorbing auditorium in the former Masonic Temple. With so much room to fill, the actors can only scream and frown; subtlety is lost; the emotional landscape is monochromatic.
If Kuntu is to keep up, something's got to change. Kuntu has existed for 33 years and worked with great artists. It's time to start acting like it.
Good Black Don't Crack continues through Nov. 3. Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., Oakland. 412-624-7298 or www.kuntu.org