Thanks to shows like “Blues for Alabama Skies,” “Bourbon on the Border” and “Flyin’ West,” most Chicago audiences know Pearl Cleage for her searing, carefully constructed poetic dramas, history plays detailing racism, sexism and survival.
However, all three of these titles (one of them Now you can see (in a thrilling revival by the Remy Bumppo Theater Company) was written in the 1990s. After this Cleage gained greater fame as a novelist. I remember reading the delightful book “Looking Like Crazy on a Typical Day,” which became a bestseller and was part of Oprah’s famous book club. When Cleage returned to the theatre, he wrote a play of a much more commercial kind in 2013; A situational comedy that gently pokes fun at the elite matriarchy surrounding black teenagers making their debut in Montgomery, Alabama, in the early 1960s.
This work understandably walks a delicate line between understanding how such societies are formed by relatively wealthy women of color determined to create their own institutions that promote excellence, and pushing these organizations to move away from elitism within the Black community and toward positive social change. In this play, first seen at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta under the direction of Susan Booth (now the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre), moral messages emerge as comic misunderstandings and various tricks and intrigues ensue: tradition can stifle ambitious youth, the privileged social events should be used to promote scholarship, not elitism, and older Southern families, whether Black or white, often have skeletons in the closet.
The full name of the play, “The Nacirema Society Requests Your Presence at its First Hundred Years Celebration,” takes place in the elegant home of the society’s chief patron. Its mechanisms include secret letters, eavesdropping, many secrets, and romantic attractions that must be hidden even if they are bound to be revealed.
The revelations come thick and fast when the New York Times allows a reporter to stay at the home of one of the subjects he covers, with deep secrets hidden inside an easy-to-find bookshelf of books. But mostly the idea is to have fun and create great roles for a company of Black actors.
In Goodman, such a company was indeed founded by director Lili-Anne Brown. This is one of Black Chicago’s stage talents, as any show here in a long time is as formidable a collection of seasoned performers as E. Faye Butler (who plays matriarch Grace Dunbar, often hilarious); Ora Jones (as his assistant Catherine); Jaye Ladymore (portraying Northern journalist); Sharriese Hamilton (as a Dunbar by marriage, caught between tradition and teenage rebellion) and Tyla Abercrumbie (as a woman left out of it all). Also starring Felicia Oduh, Demetra Dee and loner Eric Gerard are members of the younger generation trying to make sense of all this nonsense, and Shariba W. Rivers is a maid who says nothing but sees a lot.
All of these performers, led by the indefatigable Brown, a Chicago treasure, are hilarious from start to finish. There’s plenty of comic style, too, from Jones’ crazy antics to Rivers’ physical comedy to Butler’s enthusiastic embrace of her Lady Bracknell-like character. Abercrumbie delivers the sharpest performance befitting his character: it’s an emphatic turn and contributes significantly to deepening the largely situational action.
The physical set of the series, designed by Arnel Sancianco, is huge; It’s overkill in my opinion, and the long transitions between scenes go beyond the ideal duration for a comedy like this. I prefer to watch actors, especially in the first act, where they can (and sometimes literally do) lean into the laughs while maintaining the reality of the situation. Things aren’t so subtle towards the end in this series.
With all that said, I heard whirlwinds of amusement from clearly delighted audiences on opening night. People are ready to laugh and most things here are funny.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
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Review: “Nacirema Community” (3 stars)
When: until October 15
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Working time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Tickets: $25-$70 at 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org