by Cathy Hammer
In a small mountain settlement above a city in the South, three elders — Alberta, Oscar, and Lillie Mae — along with the daughter and grandchild of a fourth — Virginia who has temporarily left to seek medical attention at a rehabilitation center — are enjoying a quiet evening preparing supper together. These four African American families are all that remain of the 20 who settled there after slavery was abolished. They were given the land tax free as reparations. Each built a small hut and additional structures and helped cultivate the land around them. Though they were given the rights to inherit the property and all that goes with it, the younger people left for bigger cities with more opportunities and better paying jobs. Relatives rarely even come to visit. In fact Virginia’s daughter, Edna, and granddaughter, Mildred, returned only out of love and respect for their matriarch.
Because Edna was always resentful of having to spend her summers away from her friends in the city, she hasn’t told Mildred much about this land or its history. So secret has this community been that the Governor has only just learned of its existence. Now he wants to fulfill his campaign promise to visit every neighborhood under his jurisdiction. Attaching no particular significance to a tiny group of people in the 80s and 90s, he sends James, a young white lawyer who grew up nearby, to represent him. The elders prepare for his arrival in their usual manner: shotguns at their sides and binoculars at the ready. This is just one of many processes they have in place to preserve the particular way of life they have cultivated. Even Mildred seemingly learns the rules by which her grandmother, Alberta, Oscar and Lillie Mae live only when she she is reprimanded for stepping outside of them. Her lack of knowledge and appreciation have severe consequences when she innocently shares some of the property’s secrets with James on whom she has developed a crush.
Written by Karimah, Imminently Yours beautifully weaves together several potent themes. One is an emotional examination of the ongoing impact slavery has on our society. Another is the connection between history and the road ahead and the responsibilities each generation has to the others. Thirdly, she puts a sympathetic face on eminent domain, which once again has been the subject of recent headlines. The playwright intersperses impassioned speeches with realistic snippets that illustrate true friendship and the essence of family. And she wisely avoids creating a villain, allowing the audience to understand all the perspectives and develop their own call to action.
The scenery (by set designer Chris Cumberbatch and scenic artist Lynne Michelle) with its simple cabins, mismatched furniture, and patches of grass, set the proper tone and location. Costumes by Katherine Roberson play up the distinction between the relaxed elders and the citified “others.” Unfortunately it is difficult to judge the quality of the direction by Count Stovall and the other members of the creative team (lighting design by Melody A. Beal, visual projection and sound design by Michele Baldwin). Though presented by the historic Negro Ensemble Company, Inc., in its current state this production is more of a staged reading than a world premiere. The cast features the legendary Arthur French and Dorothi Fox along with Edythe Jason, Colette Bryce, Nia Akilah Robinson and Ryan Desaulniers. At the final preview, two of the actors were still on book and unable to properly interact with the others. This marred the rhythm of the dialogue and stunted the staging. There were also technical issues. The lighting came up before the actors were in place as well as before they had properly cleared the stage after each scene. Additionally, the sound system wasn’t working properly and the projections were fuzzy, so the design concept felt incomplete.
A member of NEC’s Playwriting Unit, Karimah is an obvious talent and her work is filled with promise. The smart script of Imminently Yours is rich with material. By using current real world issues as a jumping off point, she is able to blend stark reality with a warm sense of whimsy. Her voice deserves additional opportunities to be heard.
Imminently Yours — Off-Broadway at Theatre 80 St. Marks (80 St. Marks Place between 2nd and 1st Avenues) Performances Wednesday to Saturday at 8PM; Sunday at 3PM and 7PM. Runtime is a little over two hours with one 15 minute intermission Tickets: $25 gen. adm., $20 seniors, students and groups of ten and more Box office: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/1011541 tel. 866-811-4111, Group sales: 212-580-9624. Limited run ends June 30.