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The Ancestor Series

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The Ancestor Series, a trilogy of one-act plays by P.J. Gibson, offers the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company the chance to showcase the range and depth of local African-American actresses. All three plays, each directed by a different member of the ensemble, depict black women interacting with their (mostly) female ancestors from the slave years all the way back to proud African tradition.

This is the trilogy's local premiere. Written by the Pittsburgh-born Gibson (who is now an English professor in New York City), each one-act stands on its own, though they share a theme of reverence for the accomplishments of ancestors. 

The opening play -- "The Taking Circle," directed by Ja'Sonta Roberts Deen -- features a sole modern character who pursues her heritage in a detailed, and often graphic, dream. Shula (Vema Sam'i, combining humility and boldness) watches her slave forebears assist in the birth of a daughter, and then calls upon their ancestral African matriarch (a magnificent Stephanie Akers) to take the newborn away from slavery and shame. The ritual resolves both a curse and a mystery.

The latter two works consider this legacy and add the problem of "moderns" not fully appreciating it.

"Blood on the Seats," directed by Kim El, is the longest and least satisfying of the trio, as it hammers on the theme of "respect thy elders." There are some good comic turns by Leslie 2X Smith as a self-deluded black Republican. And it's a joy to watch the veteran Chrystal Bates as an African-arts shop-owner veer smoothly from light-hearted humor to heart-tugging tragedy. But the repetitious invocations of "man," "woman," "ancestor" by the various players never reach a poetic rhythm, and tend to drag.

Wrapping up the series, "Weeding" is short, interactive and wicked. As director, Smith deftly combines and contrasts the grandeur of the ancestors -- Cheryl El Walker a proud 19th-century woman, Mayme Williams the powerful African ancient -- with the scuzziness of a couple of kids gone bad. And Laneece Patterson, so touching as the new mother in "Circle," is particularly good at being bad.

Gibson's harsh and often graphically violent vision is tempered by music, especially the wordless singing in "Circle." These are not happy plays, but there are laughs as well as sorrows, and a sense of triumph in all of them.

 

The Ancestor Series continues through April 24. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co., 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org

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