Mama is certainly not on the couch in Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.'s production of Ma Noah, an award-winning 2004 serious comedy by company founder and artistic director Mark Clayton Southers. My "mama on the couch" reference is to George C. Wolfe's wickedly funny The Colored Museum (1985), satirizing the post-Raisin in the Sun memes of African-American theater and art. Southers takes that sensibility into the 21st century with more realism, depth and layered humor.
Set in 2004 in the Philadelphia projects, Ma Noah begin as a seemingly standard drama of a woman raising her children to adulthood almost single-handedly. (First husband dead, second in jail, leaving two sets of half-siblings with complicated relationships.) Their world is buffeted with waves of anger, frustration and confusion, but especially by the tentacles of the drug trade that promises dreams and delivers destruction.
But the title character devises ingenious strategies to protect her young-adult children from the flood of temptations and dangers that threaten to destroy her family. Ma Noah also provides the opportunity for a bravura performance by Chrystal Bates, from passionate speeches to stage business that I dare not reveal, except to say that Bates gleefully pulls it off. This production also marks the first time that Bates has performed with real-life daughter Cheryl Bates-White. As seemingly the most sensible of the four children, Bates-White channels her mother spot-on in a scene leading a family prayer.
Completing the family (and cast) are a wonderfully physical DeVaugn Robinson as the wound-too-tight younger brother; the sylph-like Heaven Bobo as his full sister; and mercurial Trevor Butler as the eldest son, a more complicated — and compromised — update of Lorraine Hansberry's Walter Younger. Director Tracey D. Turner artfully interprets Southers with Joseph Martinez contributing fight choreography; Cheryl El-Walker, costumes and makeup; Diane Melchitzky, set; Thurston Reyes, lights; and Mark Whitehead, sound.
There's a lot of pain in Ma Noah, stanched but not stopped by the occasional triumphs and joy.