In a season dedicated to the work of Rob Penny, Kuntu Repertory Theatre's latest offering pairs two of his one-act plays: "Reachings" and "Pain in My Heart." Both are thought-provoking and emotionally charged. As directed by Mark Clayton Southers, they illustrate Penny's talent for bringing abstract political and social issues down to a concrete level.
From Kuntu's creation in 1975 until Penny's death in 2003, he was playwright-in-residence at the company which is dedicated to telling the stories of people of African descent. In "Reachings," Penny depicts Lee Meredith, a talented and prolific jazz composer living in Pittsburgh, who in 1975 has become reclusive, absorbing himself in his music. Meredith's touchstones are his sister, Jean, and his girlfriend, Cheryl, who while visiting his meager apartment clash and ignite in a heated dispute. Reluctantly, Lee is forced to confront his relationships with the women, his music, his ascetic existence and his traumatic memories from Vietnam.
"Reachings" emphasizes that the ravages of war go well beyond military action and extend into the psyches of our veterans and their loved ones. This production's cast -- Tyrone Johnson (Lee), Jackie Omotalade (Jean) and Marcia Jones (Cheryl) -- certainly hits Penny's high notes. However, when the smoke has cleared, the actors fall short on conveying emotion, and at times seem detached.
"Pain in My Heart," set in Pittsburgh during the '80s, is about the reunion of ex-lovers Millicent and Abdullah, 15 years after their involvement in the civil-rights movement. Although both characters have achieved success, Millicent still holds strong to the ideals of the movement, while Abdullah does not. And there's one more issue: Abdullah is married to a white woman.
In Millicent, Penny created a character strong in her convictions, yet simultaneously ambivalent and vulnerable, which yields a compelling character and storyline.
Tyrone Johnson reappears as Abdullah. Again he seems detached at times, but overall conveys the cool confidence of his character. Kim El portrays Millicent with poise as a strong, successful woman who is working through her past and reconciling those feelings with the present.
"Reachings" and "Pain in My Heart" continue through Sat., April 18. University of Pittsburgh Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave. (seventh floor), Oakland. 412-624-7298 or www.kuntu.org