Lookingglass examines racism, reparations in world premiere 'Plantation!'
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"Plantation!" -- ½
"Plantation!" -- Kevin Douglas' new comedy in its world premiere at Lookingglass Theatre Company -- isn't quite the bountiful harvest audience members might have expected.
Bold, ambitious and often funny, this female-centered farce -- briskly directed by Lookingglass co-founder and "Friends" and Northwestern University alum David Schwimmer -- addresses racism and reparations for descendants of Africans enslaved in America. Specifically, it asks how descendants of a Southern family that built its fortune on slave labor might make amends for America's original sin.
Douglas addressed similarly weighty issues in his play "Thaddeus and Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure," which premiered at Lookingglass in 2016. But he does so with a sense of humor evidenced by the new play's broad physical comedy and timely references. "Get Out" gets a shout out, as does the Time's Up movement and "white girl tears" -- which an African-American character explains is how Caucasian women deflect charges of racism after they've uttered (intentionally or not) insensitive comments.
But for all that, this "Plantation!" needs some tending. The clichéd characters lack dimension, and contrivances abound. Case in point: the rainbow-colored, antebellum-style taffeta gowns the characters don for dinner. The costuming sight gag adds little to the narrative. And the knockabout chase near the end of the play, in which a white character wearing Ku Klux Klan robes tries to intimidate the African-American characters, was too unsettling to be funny.
Yet "Plantation!" starts with good intentions.
Troubled by the discovery that her husband's great, great grandfather owned slaves, Texas matriarch Lillian Wright (Janet Ulrich Brooks) -- in a genuine expression of atonement and altruism -- decides to give away the ancestral plantation as reparation for his sins.
She decides the beneficiaries will be the descendants of a slave named Sarah, whom the Wright family patriarch owned and loved and with whom he shared a son.
With help from a genealogist and Facebook, Lillian locates Sarah's great, great granddaughters and invites them to the estate. Oldest sister and de facto caretaker London Wright (Lily Mojekwu) arrives with her younger sisters -- aspiring poet and Black Lives Matter activist Sydney (Ericka Ratcliff) and "social influencer" Madison (Tamberla Perry), who has 500,000 social media followers. They show up expecting a family reunion, but they get much more when Lillian offers them the home (a gorgeous, genteel mansion designed by Courtney O'Neill) -- with no strings attached.
Predictably, Lillian's daughters don't share their mother's enthusiasm for making amends. The women -- racist reality show wannabe Kimberly (Louise Lamson), overlooked middle child Kara (Linsey Page Morton) and college student turned stoner Kayley (Grace Smith) -- go to great lengths to thwart their mother's efforts, including digging up dirt to discredit their new extended family members.
Meanwhile, the would-be owners ponder Lillian's offer and disagree over whether they should accept.
Observing the turmoil that ensues is graduate student Diana (Hannah Gomez), who's filling in while her housekeeper mother is away.
Schwimmer's cast is top-notch and the acting is spirited. And while Douglas' script could stand some revisions, Lookingglass' fast-paced production is often very funny. Some scenes -- particularly the newcomers' reaction to the aforementioned Klan high jinks -- are quite affecting. And the final moments are especially poignant.
But for me, the scene that lingers is the one in which Morton's Kara (unintentionally?) makes an offensive remark, which Ratcliff's Sydney challenges. Kara responds with tears. Sydney then reprimands her, pointing out that tears make the situation about the white woman's hurt feelings instead of the insult endured by people of color.
The better response, says Sydney, is to "say you're sorry and try to do better."
From her lips to our ears.
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Location: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, (312) 337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through April 22. Also 7:30 p.m. March 11, 20, 25 and April 22; 2 p.m. March 15, 29 and April 12. No 7:30 p.m. show March 24
Running time: About 95 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Paid lots nearby
Rating: For teens and older; contains adult language and mature content