Halfhearted Heist

Bankable performances can't save Steal Away's well-meaning robbery

There's a reason so many of us buy DVDs of movies and TV shows we've seen so many times. When it's done with style and originality (like, say, Richard Pryor's Live on the Sunset Strip performance), we can watch the same act over and over again.

Familiar elements are certainly present in Steal Away, a comedy by Ramona King now playing at Karamu House. And while the plot is formulaic and the characters behave in stereotype lockstep, the cast is studded with some very funny ladies who almost carry the day.

Set in Depression-era Chicago, the show features five mature black women who make up the Negro Women's Organization for Youth Education, a group that sells pies to fund advanced degrees for deserving young black females in the neighborhood. They have gathered at founder Stella Kyzer's home to celebrate the college graduation of their second recipient, Stella's granddaughter Tracy.

The ladies are a vocal and confrontational bunch, as you might expect, but they are blindsided by Tracy's evident reluctance to become a schoolteacher and the politically edgy tendencies she picked up at college. Indeed, Tracy startlingly proposes that, since bake sale receipts have fallen off, the NWOYE should rob a bank to fund higher learning for more black women.

After a fairly meandering first act, the second stanza sharpens as the ladies — who have been turned down for a bank loan — plan and execute the heist. Director Jean "Granny" Hawkins wisely decides to give her cast room to emote as broadly as they wish, which is not a bad idea for material this thin. And in most cases, her players acquit themselves well.

As resident skeptic and secret tippler Bluiah Daniels, Brenda Adrine has a deadeye gaze that could stop a rabid dog in mid-stride. She nails her punch lines with acerbic aplomb. When she advocates sending young women of questionable background to college ("We've sent some sweetie-pies — time to mix it up a bit"), she shocks her chums.

Stephanie Stovall plays Renita Ruth, the robbery's acting general, with a voice so deep and echoing that it sounds electronically enhanced. She exhibits fearless stage presence and a deft way with sassy backtalk. Playing Jade Long, a woman with a lot to say but a fairly unpredictable bladder, Iris Tucker-Berry is the only actor to throw away lines and generate big laughs in return. And Irma McQueen prompts some giggles as Sudy Atkinson, the gal who steels the group's resolve when a couple ladies begin to falter.

Unfortunately, even with these performances leading the way, Steal Away feels soft and lethargic. Some of this has to do with director Hawkins allowing unimportant moments to drag on too long, like when the ladies put on their coats and hug each other goodbye.

But there is a regrettable vacuum formed at the center of the play between Tracy, played by Arien Hodges, and her grandma Stella. Hodges never seems to capture the revolutionary verve that her words indicate, fading into the wallpaper instead of creating a strong presence among these feisty older dames. And an early scene where Tracy outlines her bank robbery scheme is just plain surreal, as Hodges channels a black preacher for no apparent reason.

As Stella, Sharon Brandon begins at a slow pace and later relies more on volume than characterization to communicate her character's conflicts. Since we never really grasp the significance or depth of the Stella-Tracy relationship, the pathos beneath all the easy comedy, well, steals away.

Playwright King clearly has some important things to say about the way black women were treated in the 1930s, and even now, but her attempts at gravitas are too obvious. She writes a second scene where Tracy justifies her wacky bank-robbery notion in terms of "collecting on the 40 acres and a mule" promise made to freed slaves after the Civil War.

That's a long way, chronologically and thematically, to go for a play's rationale, and it feels out of place. It would have been better if these clever, strong women had just decided to rob banks for the obvious Willie Sutton reason: That's where the money is.

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