by M. L. Byrd
Sycamore Rouge’s rendition of Langston Hughes’ Simply Heavenly is a delightful ensemble piece, set in 1950s Harlem. Hughes’ beloved character Jesse B. Semple is the star. Although the focus of the play is “womens and mens,” the discreet racial critiques and subtle social commentaries are as striking today as they would have been when the play opened.
Semple (L. Roi Boyd) assumes an exaggerated naiveté to criticize society. As he points out that blacks are either hyper-represented (for crimes) or ignored by the media, he follows with the arch example of a local paper’s interviews with a host of people who reported alien sightings; all had Italian, Dutch, or other European names. Semple then bemoans, “Why can’t a black man see a flying saucer?” Similarly, Semple’s complaint that he’s been messed up ever since he was a Negro, is both an excuse–as his friend Boyd (Thomas Nowlin) points out (because everyone has troubles) and an important, incisive social pronouncement. While American unemployment, for instance, currently sits around nine percent, African- American unemployment stands at sixteen.
Semple’s courtship is more problematic. Because L. Roi Boyd does not distinguish between the inflated naiveté of Semple’s political observations and the ingenuity of his courtship, Semple comes across as insincere, and the steadfast devotion of his girlfriend Joyce (Shola Walker) to the still-married, under-employed player—albeit well-portrayed–seems clueless at best, obtuse at worst. Semple has to choose from what seem to be opposites, but both Joyce and her antithesis, the daring floozy Zarita (Valerie Davis), want a home and husband. Both chase Semple; both help him financially.
Any failure of that plot-line is off-set, however, by the depiction of the long married couple, Bodiddley (Toney Q. Cobb) and Arcie (Nancy Callaway), whose saga of life with seventeen children undercuts any illusions of passion. The wooing of savvy and independent Mamie (Winter Bailey) with the dashingly attractive salesman, Watermelon Joe (Kamau Akinwole) is also a refreshing antidote. Their interactions are delightful; their duets, delicious. They would not have to try to steal the show.
While the story is billed as Semple’s search for happiness, it is actually a story of knitting and keeping close community. Scenic designer Keith Saine brings a tiny bar to life, and director Darryl C. Davis fills it with believable, truly likable characters. The bar, under the watchful and caring eyes of owner/bartender Hopkins (Larry Akin Smith), offers refuge and companionship. Writer Boyd works on his craft, while homemaker Arcie works on crossword puzzles. Topics of conversation range from the draft to the cost of shoes.
In a lovely synchronicity for the city, the play’s opening on Friday, September 23rd coincided with the inauguration of Virginia State University’s thirteenth president. In his speech, President Miller reviewed the extraordinary achievements of the college’s first president, John Mercer Langston—the poet’s great-uncle. The play runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8:oo p.m. and Sundays at 4:oo through October 16th. Tickets can be purchased online www.sycamorerouge.org or at the box office 804.957.5707.