Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

This Property Is Condemned / 27 Wagons Full of Cotton
Karamu House
Review by Mark Horning | Season Schedule

Also see Mark's reviews of Witness for the Prosecution and Fire on the Water

Andrew Thomas Pope and Yumi Ndhlovu
Photo by Vince Robinson
They say that sometimes big things come in small packages. Every so often this is true with theater. For their current offering, Karamu House has opted for two short plays by Tennessee Williams, presented in their intimate Arena Theatre. This Property Is Condemned and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton total only 75 minutes of stage time plus a fifteen minute intermission, but it is time well worth spending. The two plays are directed by Latecia Delores Wilson.

Tennessee Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, to a happy childhood until a nearly fatal bout of diphtheria left him in a weakened state. In 1919 the family pull up stakes and moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Living in the midst of an unhappy marriage and being constantly forced to move around St. Louis due to his father's alcoholism, Williams turned inward and began to write short stories that brought him notice by his teachers.

After college and at the age of 28, he moved to New Orleans where he became immersed in the city life that would, along with his childhood memories, be a great influence on his work. His first major work, The Glass Menagerie, opened on Broadway in 1945 and was followed two years later by A Streetcar Named Desire, winning him his first Pulitzer Prize.

Set during the Great Depression, This Property Is Condemned introduces Willie (Yumi Ndhlovu) as a child/woman who is worldly well beyond her years. She is trying desperately to cling to the last vestiges of her false purity. She lives alone in the condemned house that is mere feet away from the railroad tracks that are the main route for the Cannonball Express. Abandoned by their parents, Willie and her sister Alva had survived by taking in railroad workers as "borders," but when Alva dies from a lung ailment the young Willie dresses in her sister's faux finery of dresses and jewelry and spends her time scavenging for food.

Tom (Andrew Thomas Pope), a young local boy, discovers Willie walking on the rails of the train tracks to pass the time while surviving out of garbage cans. He is intrigued and infatuated with her as she her story of loss and suffering. Knowing that he can be of no help to her, he leaves to go home unaware of the irreversible fate that awaits the young girl.

Andrew Aaron Valdez and Natalie Grace Sipula
Photo by Vince Robinson
In the short one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, it is an oppressively hot summer in the Mississippi Blue Mountain region at the height of the Great Depression and Jake Meighan (Andrew Aaron Valdez) and his wife Flora (Natalie Grace Sipula) are in dire financial circumstances. Jake owns a cotton gin but the entire county has been bought out by a consortium who raise their cotton much like a corporate farm and have built their own cotton gin to process the crop.

Out of desperation, Jake blows up the rival cotton gin while relying on Flora to be his alibi. Silva Vicarro (Darelle Hill), the foreman for the consortium, arrives to offer Jake the job of processing 27 wagon loads of a rush cotton order which Jake cheerfully agrees to, leaving the two alone as he goes to complete the job. As Silva talks to Flora he realizes how involved Jake was in his latest round of misfortune and makes plans to wreck revenge on a continuous basis.

Prophet D. Seay and his crew Shawn Delaney, Keenan Cobb and Issac Washington have designed an awesome double-duty set that consists of a scale set of railroad tracks passing within inches of a dilapidated house. Part of the extra seating is fenced in with a distressed white picket fence to further add to the mood. Colleen Albrecht's lighting design succeeds in setting the Southern summer oppressive heat mood. Sound designer Jeremy Dobbins has Delta blues gently filling the small space initially, but as the stories begin, switches to environmental sounds of dogs barking and cicadas. It is almost enough to get you to wish for a tall glass of iced lemonade. As always, the costume design by Inda Blatch-Geib carefully matches the local and time frame to a T.

The small cast is well versed in the poetic rhythms of Tennessee Williams' prose and work very well with each other to make both stories believable. Although the entire stage time is short, the dialogue is carefully spaced in an unhurried and leisurely manner familiar to anyone who has traveled south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Do not be fooled by the brevity of these two works. Combined, they give you a solid dose of entertainment with the type of message that Tennessee Williams was famous for. This is an intimate evening of theater that is a nice break from the 180-minute extravaganzas we have become used to. It is well worth your time.

This Property Is Condemned and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, through March 10, 2019, at Karamu House, 2355 E 89th St., Cleveland OH. tickets may be purchased online by going to or by phone by calling 216-795-7077.

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