- Azrianna Walker and Connor McCanlus in Matt Henderson's "The Balancing of the Budget," part of the Theatre Festival in Black & White.
Compendiums of new plays are a mixed bag, sometimes with more tricks than treats. In its eighth incarnation, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.'s Theatre Festival in Black & White -- presented in two evenings of four one-acts each -- seems to have kept its soapboxes but lost its edginess.
On the plus side, it generally makes for a more "family friendly" atmosphere, as exemplified in the stand-out stunner, Kim El's "Just Fishin'," masterfully directed by Hallie Donner and capping the festival's Program A. So much of the production depends upon the abilities and interactions of child actors, and Donner's long career with young talent -- she's taught drama and founded a youth-theater group -- helps make the cast sparkle: Kathrine Logan, as the brightly annoying little sister; Nia Washington, as the elder sister thinking out some things; and Emmanuel Walker, as the brother who thinks he needs to be tough, though he still needs some work on the concept. It doesn't hurt that the lone adult is one of Pittsburgh 's top actors, Wali Jamal, as the wily and wise grandfather. Set on a 1960s summer's day in the country near a lake, the play subtly makes its points about family harmony, racial history and the trials of growing up.
Subtlety, however, is not the festival's long suit this year. The rest of Program A begins amusingly, with Ray Werner's "Felled Family Tree," directed by Lonzo Green. It's really more of a comedy sketch than a play, but it does provide a good venue for some fast-paced, intentionally misfired dialogue from Jennifer Marcin, Darren Shrager, Jeffrey Preberg Jr., Kait Mausser and Joseph A. Root. Alas, in between the promising starter and the satisfying closer are the preachy and often over-written "In My Sistah's Closet" and "Runcible Spoon." The former, by Aasiyah El Kirk and directed by Vince Ventura, rambles off in so many directions, sometimes embarrassingly so, with its nugget of a character study of American Muslim women. The latter, by Constance Humphrey Egan and directed by Myneesha Miller-King, hammers its message of mis-fitting in society, as symbolized by a spork.
The "B" side of the fest is less uneven, with a couple of surprising fantasies offering the odd array of chuckles. "Apple Says Yes" is a geek's dream as screwball comedy, written by Andre Kimo Stone Guess and directed by Randy Kovitz. Yes, computers are involved -- in the production as well as the plot, such as it is. Don't expect it to make sense. The multimedia magical realism continues with Matt Henderson's "The Balancing of the Budget," a bizarre wish-fulfillment of many a YouTube addict, directed by Michael Jackson. Gotta love the great look and interplay of Xazrianna Walker and Lamont Robinson. (Kudos to festival costume designer Cheryl El-Walker.)
We're back to the soapbox with Tameka Cage's "I Said Goodnight," an over-talky view of a troubled marriage as it teeters from New Year's Eve into a future that may offer some hope. Directed by Todd Betker, Angelo Bruni and Danielle Thomas make an intelligent couple. Wrapping up the evening is a biracial version of F.J. Hartland's successful "Shaving Lessons and a Half-Windsor Knot," directed by Ja'Sonta Roberts Deen, and perhaps too demanding of its young central actor, Carlos A. Thomas Sr. Michael E. Moats and Deen herself are solid as the parents.
While the Playwrights Co. itself is growing and maturing, the festival seems rough around the edges. Perhaps coordinator Eric A. Smith could have been stricter with participants on avoiding such pitfalls as fuzzy focus, silly stereotypes (e.g. all white women are dim-bulb harpies) and unnecessary verbiage.
THEATRE FESTIVAL IN BLACK & WHITE continues with two alternating programs through Sun., Dec. 4. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. at 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. www.pghplaywrights.com/bwfest