Every life has turning points, and for many of us one of the biggies is when we leave home for college. That wrenching decision to leave the comforts of home for a new, unknown world is hard for everyone, but it's particularly wrenching for a poor African-American farm girl in Alabama in 1969.
This is the setup for A Star Ain't Nothin' But a Hole in Heaven by Judi Ann Mason, now at Karamu House. While Mason's script usually captures the rhythm and lilt of her characters' language, and a couple of the actors distinguish themselves with fine performances, the tempo of the production is often excessively sluggish.
At this time in America, the civil rights movement is chugging along at full force and Pokie Cotton has been awarded a scholarship to a college in Ohio, as has her friend Joretta. But Pokie is living on the farm with her nearly blind Uncle Lemuel and seriously ailing Aunt Mamie, and is concerned about leaving them to fend for themselves.
Unsophisticated and protected by the relatives who took her in, Pokie is also uneasy about moving up north. This feeling is accentuated since her snarky uncle feeds her nonsense about the questionable value of education for black people.
Leumuel represents a subset of a generation of black people who, at one time, saw civil rights gains as more threatening than promising. He is fond of saying that blacks have knowledge in their hands, while whites have knowledge in their brains, so higher learning is unnecessary.
Fortunately for Pokie, Aunt Mamie is a much more sensible person. She celebrates her niece's achievements by buying her a new white dress for the graduation and encouraging her to reach for the heaven alluded to in the title. But Mamie is beset by physical and mental problems that keep her in a fragile and dependent state.
The playwright crafts a believable world for Pokie, which also includes an interfering but well-meaning neighbor Pearl (Leslie Colleen Wright), a hot-to-trot local lothario Sonny (Jarrell Brown) and Joretta's irritating little brother Bernard (Howard Monroe).
But most of the interesting interplay takes place among Pokie, her relatives and Joretta. And that's a good thing, because each of the actors in those roles acquit themselves rather well.
As Pokie, Corlesia Smith exudes the simple goodness and innocence her character demands, without making her cloying. And Joyce Linzy as Aunt Mamie is often a treat to watch, as the elderly woman battles her body and other demons while always trying to do right by Pokie.
Trouble is, Mamie is saddled with speeches that sound more like a country preacher doing a gig at a motivational seminar: "Sometimes you gotta reach out and tug at a dream that nobody sees but you, and it's gonna shine on you like a star..." And so forth.
Although speaking too rapidly at times, Courtney Marshall invests Joretta with just the right amount of no-nonsense attitude that keeps Pokie in line. And Butch Terry has the growling, simmering act of Uncle Lemuel down pat, although a bit more variety could lend dimension to this damaged man.
These promising characterizations are hampered significantly by Mason's repetitive script and a pacing within scenes that is often slow when it isn't completely stalled.
Director Terrence Spivey appears to sacrifice momentum for character development—not a deal that works in the play's favor at all times. And that makes for a fairly long 2½ hours.