Bumper-sticker wisdom: “Truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”
The above, applicable in most of life’s trials and tribulations – almost always in matters of family – is certainly a given in the lives of the kin, friends and acquaintances in a bittersweet play by the renowned Marjorie Eliot, “Branches from the Same Tree,” just now in revival at The Paul Robeson Theatre, keenly, sagely directed by Paulette Harris.
This is the second time around for this play at The Robeson, the first production of it perhaps 25 years ago, directed then by the legendary Laverne Clay. Current director Harris felt “Branches” still resonated and so it’s back, chatty as ever, audiences still needing a scorecard to keep family loyalties and relationships straight. Secrets are many – some disclosed casually over coffee and cheesecake, others blurted in anger and spite – with a conclusion that I can’t tell you about other than long-festering resentments boil over, hidden and hushed agreements are bared and the past once again catches up and clashes with the present. And the future – for Mama Ruby, Carrie, Mabel, young Sonny and just about everyone else in the extended family – may be irreparably divided.
“Branches” opened on Valentine’s Day but forget the flowers and candy. In fact, the story takes place at Christmas, normally the happiest day of the year for Mama, a time when she throws a holiday bash – food, plenty of nog, the best duds – but also when she does a bit of undisguised matchmaking for her two unmarried daughters: Carrie, once fast and loose but now Bible toting and quoting and vowing a forever chaste life; and the earthy, sensible, caustic Mabel, wary of anybody male after a marriage to a lout. Word is out that Mabel’s ex is back in town. Mama, the textbook control freak, is watchful and she has invited the new pastor – unmarried – to the party. The guest list combines possibility and peril. Every time the doorbell rings the chance for chaos goes up a peg.
Well, things go downhill fast. In sum, the family can’t handle the formerly closeted skeletons that tumble forth – their little, gossiping Georgia town has had its share of shocking scandals, and we learn about them in this soap opera tale – except that Carrie, free but miserable as the adage goes, does see a ray of hope in the tree metaphor of the play’s title: The leaves die, the limbs may fall off, but the roots still may have life.
“Branches from the Same Tree” has a fine ensemble, able portrayals all around from Annette Christian; wise and cool Debbie Davis; Shawn Robinson; Charles Everhart; Andy Finley - learned and lecherous as the Reverend; Leon Copeland; Ayana Williams; Alphonso Walker Jr.; and Sandra Gilliam, one of Western New York’s excellent acting divas, as Mama.
There is a craftsman-like, move-right-in, residential set by David Stock. Excellent.
The playwright, Marjorie Eliot, also a self-described actress (“Serpico”) and musician, is the famed, two decades host of “Parlor Jazz,” the every Sunday gig still held in her New York City Harlem home. The house, landmarked, once was the home of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and, coincidentally, the famed bass-baritone, Paul Robeson. Nice tie-in for Buffalo’s African-American Cultural Center and director Harris.
Eliot is a devoted global family advocate. “We celebrate each other, embrace the sadness,” she once told Northattan, a Big Apple newspaper, and reporter Luisa Navarro.
Both sentiments are covered in “Branches from the Same Tree,” among people who need celebrating and embracing. It would be nice to think that they worked things out.
∆∆∆ (Out of four)
What: “Branches from the Same Tree”
When: Through March 9
Where: The Paul Robeson Theatre, African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave.
Tickets: $25, $22 for seniors
Info: 884-2013, aacbuffalo.org