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Pittsburgh Playwrights' Theater Festival in Black and White

Most of the entries are really more sketches than plays

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Has it really been 11 years since Pittsburgh's theatrical madman (and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.'s founder and artistic director) Mark Clayton Southers launched the Theater Festival in Black and White?

The goal was/is to break down the pervasive racial lines in Pittsburgh theater. The vehicle is a festival of one-act plays, half written by local white playwrights and directed by black directors, and the other half vice versa.

Over the years, the event has expanded and contracted in size and sometimes soared and sometimes sank in regards to artistic achievement. But every year, it has remained vital Pittsburgh-theater viewing.

This year, there's a total of eight plays presented in two separate evening-length programs, running in repertory. You'll find a report on Program B below, but first consider Program A. The plays include The Code, written by Alexis Payne and directed by John Gresh; Sublet: A Futuristic Real-Estate Comedy, by John Reoli, directed by Eric A. Smith; Family Counts, by Michael A. Moats, directed by Joseph Martinez; and Roar of the Crowd, by Matt Henderson, directed by Vanessa German.

Renee Ruzzi-Kern, Cherish Morgan and Christine Marie,A Journey to Love
  • Photo by Tene Croom
  • From left to right: Renee Ruzzi-Kern, Cherish Morgan and Christine Marie in "A Journey to Love," part of Pittsburgh Playwrights' Theater Festival in Black and White

Given the reasoning behind the festival, you'd expect a focus on plays examining racial issues, and that's something I've particularly enjoyed about the festival in the past. But this year there's little such examination. A notable exception is The Code, which flings itself headlong into Michael Brown/Eric Garner territory when a good-ol'-boy police officer (Paul Stockhausen, in a chilling performance) shoots and kills a young African-American man. His white rookie partner, married to a black woman, is now forced to make a life-altering decision. It's a bit formulaic, but compelling — with strong performances by Dylan Baughman and Shenita Williams, as the married couple, and Brenda Marks and Stern Herd.

Sublet's a cute sketch about Manhattan's insane real-estate market, though I'm not sure how well it plays outside of New York. The remaining two skits are done in by some odd artistic choices: Family Counts is really an extended PSA about prostate examinations, but presented with an illogical framing device that stops it from going anywhere. Roar chugs along nicely, with fine work by Patricia Cena Fuchel and Harrison Stengle, and then in the final two minutes something very bizarre happens; I can't give it away, but it completely demolishes the play. Don't know who thought it up, but they need to unthink it.

 

But wait, there's more! The festival's Program B comprises Terms of Contract, written by Paul Kruse, directed by Adil Mansoor; Marla Carter's A Journey to Love, directed by Joanna Lowe; Emma Wagner's No Late Seating, directed by Sharnese Thomas; and Brian Pope's Paper Trail, directed by Abby Kim.

If I have a caveat about the festival, it's that the programs are really more a collection of skits and sketches than plays. That's not specific to the Black and White Festival, by the way; most outings of this nature typically offer similar fare. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but you (or maybe just me) are left wishing for something with a bit more chew.

Of the eight pieces on view this year, six are skits: the aforementioned three in Program A, and B's opener, Terms. It's a very short sketch in a futuristic colony where the required and regulated mating duties gets flummoxed when the man turns out to be the husband of the brother of the lesbian he's supposed to, um, fertilize. Beth Glick and Dave Bishaha are fun, and if you blink you'll miss it.

No Late Seating is a brief bit of wackiness about ushers in a music hall which is so unfettered by reality that the play's incredulity works against the humor. Journey to Love is a spoken-word piece for four women railing against a man they've all loved. Dominique Briggs, Christine Marie, Renee Kern and Cherish Morgan work hard to animate this wordy (by design) piece.

Only Paper Trail stands out as an actual play, although one in miniature. (A's The Code is first runner-up.) Here a young man, movingly played by Kevin H. Moore, remembers his friendship with a young woman (in a complex portrayal by Bri Feingold) who ultimately dies of cancer. It's a deeply felt work; the poetry of the language is a continuing surprise; and playwright Pope consistently subverts cliché and feel-good melodrama. Without question it's my favorite piece this year of this important Pittsburgh theatrical tradition.

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