Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

On Strivers Row

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 26, 2017

Madelynn Poulson, SJ Hannah, Al-nisa Petty,
and Kim Yancey-Moore
Photo by Ed Forti

A production of Abram Hill's On Strivers Row, opening today at the Metropolitan Playhouse, offers a rare opportunity to see the kind of work that was a specialty of the American Negro Theater during the 1940s, one of some 20 plays that were written, produced, and performed for black audiences by that Harlem-based organization. The play itself is a head-spinning mix of low comedy, social satire, and melodrama, and it is decidedly rickety in its structure as it careens unabashedly across all of these forms. But, as performed by a sparkling cast of 16 under Timothy Johnson's direction, it is consistently compelling for its portrait of backbiting black-on-black class snobbery and social climbing.

The play takes place in "Strivers Row," an actual area of well-appointed townhouses along 138th and 139th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. In one of these live Oscar and Dolly Van Striven and their daughter Cobina, a student at Radcliffe. As the play opens, preparations are being made for an elegant party to mark Cobina's debut in black society.

Amidst the bustling of dusting and arranging of furniture, there is a light tone, marked by a great deal of bantering between Dolly (Kim Yancey-Moore) and her brassy maid Sophie (DeAnna Supplee), so much so that you may think you've entered into the kind of world depicted in a sit-com that would appear three decades later, about the nouveau riche couple "The Jeffersons." But it isn't long before you realize something else is going on, as Dolly grows increasingly nervous. She keeps looking out the window to see if the guests are starting to arrive, but only a few have shown up. One of these is her "frenemy" Tillie (Lauren Marissa Smith), who is there to cover the event for the "Black Dispatch," a newspaper that specializes in dishing the dirt about the goings-on in black high society. Unfortunately, it appears there will not be much of an event, given the low turnout.

Here the playwright begins his juggling act of styles as he introduces the other characters. These include Hennypest (Lawrence Winslow) a windbag academic; Lily (Christina D. Eskridge), an actress who will start emoting at the drop of a hat; and the Davises, Louise (Marlaina Powell) and her philandering husband, Dr. Leon Davis (Roland Lane). They flit in and out of the front parlor where the play takes place, joined from time to time by the young and snooty Ed Tucker (Adrian Baidoo), whom Dolly has tagged as the perfect beau for her daughter; and Tillie's niece Rowena (Ruby Thomas) a "rival" for Ed's attentions. Meanwhile, Cobina has her own ideas of who the perfect beau is; her heart is set on a working class young man, Chuck (Anthony T. Goss), who has arranged to join the serving staff in order to be close to Cobina. (Expect a confrontation or two before too long.)

As you might imagine, there is a lot going on. Yet the big surprise has yet to come. It seems that Oscar Van Striven has invited an additional guest, Ruby Jackson (Linda Kuriloff), a former cook who recently won a large sweepstakes prize. Oscar, who confesses that he is edging close to bankruptcy despite appearances, is working on a deal to sell Ruby a piece of property that will save them all from financial ruin. For her part, Ruby is eager for an introduction into society, and she is counting on the Van Strivens to be her sponsors. Dolly Van Striven and her icily proper mother, Mrs. Pace (Marie Louise Guinier), are aghast, but this is nothing in comparison to their reaction to a pair of party crashers who have come with Ruby.

Suddenly, we are faced with a real aberration, the wild zoot-suited Joe (a firecracker performance by SJ Hannah) and his exuberant companion Beulah (Madelynn Poulson). They represent the living embodiment of Dolly and Mrs. Pace's worst nightmare, the "lowlife" of Harlem they have so carefully walled themselves away from. The pair make themselves at home, dance up a storm (the director also choreographs), and generally blow up the party, much to the delight of the gossipmonger Tillie. ("What a headline," she cackles. "Pimp and Pal Wreck Society Gal.")

Ultimately, we learn that the Van Strivens have been set up all along, as Tillie has been aiming to bring them crashing down in a great show of public shaming. It is she who has invited Joe and Beulah to put on a show, and who has disinvited most of the upper class guests. Yet, thanks to a little blackmail, all is eventually set right. And before the evening has ended, Dolly and Mrs. Pace will have learned some valuable lessons in humility and generosity of heart that soften them up.

Altogether, On Strivers Row is like some crazy mixed-up combination of Hellzapoppin, You Can't Take It With You, and those old melodramas about dastardly villains. It is often quite funny, yet it carries an undercurrent of racial stereotyping that makes you unsure as to whether to laugh or to cringe. Sample dialog: "You shuffle like Uncle Tom after he has swallowed ten beers." "You're still just another face in the Harlem coalbin." "You will see some fine young men here tonight. Unfortunately, one or two have kinky hair."

Despite any qualms you might have about lines like these that are casually tossed about throughout the play, On Strivers Row is a remarkable piece of the crazy quilt that is American theater. It is being given a first-rate production, with a well-designed set by Collin Trevor Eastwood, sumptuous costumes by Sidney Fortner, and strong performances by the entire cast. With this season's productions of On Strivers Row and the equally excellent Leah, the Foresaken, the Metropolitan Playhouse is showing a real boldness in presenting complicated and gutsy works from the past, evoking racial stereotyping in the former and anti-Semitism in the latter. These are not easy to pull off, and so kudos to all involved!

On Strivers Row
Through June 18
Metropolitan Playhouse, in The Cornelia Connelly Center, 220 East 4th Street (easternmost door) between Avenues A & B in the East Village
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

Privacy Policy