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Pittsburgh Playwrights' Ubuntu Holiday

This well-meant play is an educational experience rather than a truly theatrical one

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At last year's Theatre Festival in Black & White — Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company's annual celebration of local writers — Kim El debuted Ubuntu Holiday, her one-act about a family's Kwanzaa gathering. She's since turned the work into a full-length play that Playwrights is presenting (in rotation with Ray Werner's A Christmas Star) through year's end.

The original concerned the Owens family, who a few years prior had started celebrating Kwanzaa in hopes of both creating a deeper connection to their African heritage and stepping away from the consumerist orgy Christmas has become. This change caused problems between Sharifa Owens and her friend Jean Allen, who refuses to believe you can be Christian and also celebrate Kwanzaa. When the Owens daughter invites the Allen daughter over for dinner, Jean decides she needs to check out the scene. The tussle between Jean and Sharifa lies at the dramatic center of the piece.

Sundiata Rice, Melessie Clark, LaMar Darnell Fields and Nia Washington in Ubuntu Holiday, at Pittsburgh Playwrights
  • Photo courtesy of Mark C. Southers
  • From left: Sundiata Rice, Melessie Clark, LaMar Darnell Fields and Nia Washington in Ubuntu Holiday, at Pittsburgh Playwrights

The new version adds a first act set in Jean's home the day before, as she prepares her Christmas celebration, gossips with her daughter and gives us a peek into her world view.

Mils James directs an enthusiastic cast led by Lamar Darnell Fields as Mr. Owens, with Melessie Clark giving a strong and impeccably honest performance as Sharifa.

The spirit hovering over Ubuntu turns out not to be African ancestors, Jesus or Santa, but rather the late Pittsburgh playwright Rob Penny, who was famous for creating plays about African Americans exploring their cultural heritage. Penny's desire to educate his audience was always far more important than his desire to entertain. He had a message he wanted to share, and theater was the vehicle.

I do know that El considers Penny a mentor, and that shows in this play. Ubuntu is an educational experience rather than a truly theatrical one, and while much of the information is necessary and interesting, it's also true that the play can feel a bit preachy and stilted. El wisely leavens the sometimes thudding sincerity with flashes of welcome humor and attitude and, as a bonus, there's a rousing musical finale sending you off to whatever holiday tradition you celebrate.

And a happy New Year to all.

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