Four generations of women yearn and learn in Karamu's Jar the Floor.

Moms Aplenty 

Four generations of women yearn and learn in Karamu's Jar the Floor.

Mother-daughter relationships are like fertilizer bombs. Ordinary ingredients, when mixed in certain ways, can become highly toxic, even explosive. And when you multiply the moms by three and put four female generations of an African American family in one room, you'd best break out the Kevlar vests and shatterproof goggles, 'cause it's going to be a bumpy evening. That's the scenario playwright Cheryl L. West creates in Jar the Floor, a play with sizzling dialogue and a terrific cast, but an inability to deliver fully on its theme of women's aspirations denied and dreams deferred.

In a casually luxurious suburban crib, a game of psychological paintball is taking place at the 90th birthday celebration for matriarch MaDear, who grew up poor on a farm in Mississippi. The other players are MaDear's sixtyish daughter, Lola, along with Lola's daughter, MayDee, and MayDee's grown daughter, Vennie. As if the unstable chemistry of those layers of familial dysfunction isn't enough, Vennie has brought along her lesbian lover, a white woman who's dying of breast cancer.

Among the four related women, three have absolutely no compunction about brashly and repeatedly taunting each other for their shortcomings. MaDear, who slips in and out of reality, offhandedly says she should have killed Lola when she was born. Lola resents having to take care of her dependent mother during the day while her refined, repressed daughter, MayDee, is teaching at college and nervously anticipating the arrival of her personal holy grail: the granting of tenure. Ex-club dancer Lola's resentment for MayDee's world-weary sophistication is expressed tellingly when she lashes out, "How'd I raise a sponge for a daughter, soaking up all the world's misery and squeezing it back in my face?" And when sharp-tongued Vennie arrives in a cloud of marijuana smoke, sporting a shaved head in solidarity with her lover, Raisa (who has just endured a mastectomy and chemo), the stage is set for an incendiary denouement.

It's too bad the second act doesn't cash in on the momentum created earlier. West's narrative engine sputters through a series of revelations and fairly predictable family convulsions. Eventually, the arguments start repeating themselves, as they do in families, but the dramatic tension slowly slips from the production's grasp. While the playwright wants us to seriously consider the ways in which mothers influence the fates of their daughters, the incessant juggling of multiple generational conflicts prevents a deeper investigation of truths that remain tantalizingly out of reach.

In a cast of fine professionals, Mary Dismuke as MaDear offers an indelible performance. From her blissful, swaying dance that begins the show to her floor-pounding summoning of her dead husband's spirit (thus the title) at the end, Dismuke is amusing, irritating, and unforgettable. Lean and wiry Monte Escalante's Vennie is a coiled spring, ready to snap at her mother for perceived maternal intrusions on her life. Although Vennie's love relationship is given short shrift in the script, Escalante and Kellie McIvor as Raisa create an odd but likable couple.

The toughest role is that of ice queen MayDee, and Renee Matthews-Jackson handles it with reserved aplomb, forging the solid family core that all the other women orbit around. As the randy and uninhibited Lola, Eva Withers-Evans masters withering glares and sassy putdowns. But extraneous arm-waving and mechanical blocking executions undermine her character's believability.

Props go to director Caroline Jackson Smith for assembling such a tight ensemble. The lush home set, designed and lit by Richard H. Morris Jr., is a feast for the eyes, as are Kathryn L. Tobasko's costumes, which range from designer-label elegant to thrift-store funky.

The omnipresent shadow in this play is the absence of the men who -- apparently due to their fears, hang-ups, or egos -- left these women. By the end, you might feel sorry for the gals -- or irritated because they can't overcome those old attachments. Probably both.

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