It’s a morning like any other morning. The sun is shining; it will be hot later. A pair of traders are chatting. But something is wrong. Particular. Gradually, men realize that all the most productive citizens seem to have disappeared. Elsewhere in town, a husband and wife argue while their baby cries. A diaper needs to be changed, where is Lula? The mayor’s shoes are dull and dusty from the street. The bins have not been emptied. How can this be? Like something “Atlas Shrugged”, this sleepy southern hamlet faces a crisis that threatens to destroy its social and economic order. “Where are all the n____?” »Research teams are deployed. Panic breaks out. The National Guard is summoned. Mayor Henry RE Lee hits the airwaves in a final, desperate attempt to beg or bribe his missing constituents to return. So goes Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 play “Day of Absence”, appearing on Arena Players this month. He’s teamed up with another Ward play, the one-act “Happy Ending”, in an ambitious evening of social satire that hits its mark.
… An ambitious evening of social satire which achieves its objectives… a beautiful overall work all around.
“Happy Ending,” directed by Isaiah Evans, opens production. In a compelling imitation of kitchen table melodrama, we meet Ellie (Gina Lee) and Vi (Janette North), two sisters who work as servants for a wealthy white family. They cry, moan, and practically bemoan the impending divorce of their employers. Their nephew, Junie (Antoine Williams), returns home to this anguished scene and scolds the women, lecturing them on shame, while not having one himself. In a biting and hilarious turn, Junie finally finds a shoe that fits her and wears it. At 48 minutes, “Happy Ending” sounds like a very tight one-act play. Evans’ pace is relentless and Lee and North’s double perfectly counteracts the growing indignation of Williams, who also plays to the end and fully embraces his character’s irony. While the dialogue is rapid, the block is static. Most of the room consists of a carefully framed painting at the family table. Near the finish, the three are joined by Arthur (Tavon B. Roundtree), who helps lead the group towards the titular end.
“Day of Absence”, directed by Marc Stevens, follows an intermission. It’s long for an act in 82 minutes, but never lags. In it, a cast of 11 presents a mosaic of short scenes that illustrate the tragedy of the Nameless City. Stevens (with director, Sandra Meekins) does a good job of getting things done, in part thanks to minimalist decor by Bryon “Tony” Rodgers, Sr. The cast performs in white face, starting with Antoine Williams in the role of Clem and Emmanuel West as his Luke. If the effect is reminiscent of “An Octoroon”, it should be remembered that this treatment predates this last piece by 50 years. West and Williams are the perfect setup here – slow-minded fools who can’t quite figure out their realization of a change in their city. William A. Walker, as mayor, is lovely in his utter panic, as is Roundtree as assistant, Jackson. Cherill R. Ashton and Tina Canady share the roles of Mary, the mother of the baby without a nanny, as well as delightfully outraged members of women’s clubs. Furman T. Day is a courier in a hurry; Shateera Hatchett is also stressed as a switchboard operator; and costume designer Victoria Jackson briefly appears as her supervisor. A treat, however, is a cameo appearance by Arena art director Donald Owens. It’s a good overall job all around.
Duration: Two hours, 27 minutes with an intermission of 15 between pieces.
Notice: Frequently used racial epithets (“N” word and others).
“Happy Ending” and “Day of Absence” run through January 23, 2022 at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For tickets call (410) 728-6500 or purchase in line. Customers are required to provide proof of vaccination and must remain masked.