Theater Review By Joel Benjamin
Clearly Richard E. Waits, the author and performer of Mama Rose (We are a product of our people) isn’t afraid of the obvious reference to the overbearing mother in the musical Gypsy. The two Roses share huge egos and the need to be in charge of their surroundings. Whether or not Mr. Waits’ character is a fair or historically accurate representation of his mother doesn’t matter. What does matter is if he was able to spin an interesting and meaningful work of theater from his experiences with this audaciously over-the-top lady. This incarnation of Mama Rose, the one person presentation at Dixon Place—a cradle of creativity with an accent on LGBT artists—on the Lower East Side doesn’t quite tie all the chapters into a sweeping vision of a great Black character.
Maybe it’s because Mr. Waits has structured Mama Rose as a series of chronological, revealing vignettes without ever filling in the gaps. For instance, she calls her son Masochistic Boy. How did an uneducated country girl learn that word and how can an audience sympathize with a mother who denigrates her son in that way? How did her childhood make her the woman she became? What kind of work did she do? Etcetera.
First discovered sitting in a rocking chair dressed in tails, white shirt, tie and black shorts Mr. Waits spoke of inheriting many things from his strong mom, including keeping the plastic covers on his furniture and a love of soul food which he described in scrumptious detail.
Soon, he donned a floor-length black skirt and, with it, the persona of Mama Rose, the light-skinned lady whose story began in the South where she had kids out of wedlock, married a man who helped her (at least for a while), and then dragged her brood up North for a “better life.” The tales included her nearly killing her cheating husband before turning the other cheek; wearing a sassy pillbox hat à la Jackie Kennedy; sounding off in no uncertain terms at her son’s suburban school principal for allowing racist violence on the bus to the school; facing the threat of street gangs by fighting fire with fire; and finally, sadly giving in to the stresses of her colorful life, signified by Mr. Taits’ removing the skirt. Interspersed were bluesy songs that mirrored the dialogue, accompanied by a very patient Evan Perry-Giblin who also supplied some quiet background music.
There’s much to admire in Mr. Waits attention to detail and his understanding of her language and her need to be strong. However, he seemed to hesitate on some lines, repeating some. His rhythm was slightly off affecting the dramatic arc of the play, which didn’t flow as it might have. He also chose to directly involve audience members which didn’t quite work and also throwing off the focus of the show.
The show was directed by Paul Stancato and choreographed by John Paolillo. The costumes were by Clint Ramos whose choice of a long skirt was puzzling, giving Mama Rose an unnecessary period feel.
Mr. Waits’ Mama Rose needs more connective tissue and a stronger sense of ebb and flow before it becomes a full-fledged theater piece. Meanwhile there is a lot to admire in both the writing and the actor.
*Photos/Art Work: Ivan C. Morales
Mama Rose (We are a product of our people)
Dixon Place – October 24, 2014
161A Chrystie St. (between Delancey and Rivington Sts.)
New York, NY
Running time: 1 hour