|Posted by Elwin Green on February 17, 2023 at 6:00 PM|
"American Menu" cast members (L-R): Tajionna Clinton, Cheryl Bates-White, Karla C. Payne, Angelique Strothers, Janay Giles. Photo by Richena Brockinson, LionessPhotography.
BY RASIDA OLABISI
New Horizon Theater starts off the new year and Black History Month with a Sankofa theme that may be as relevant now as it was more than a half-century ago.
Written by Don Wilson Glenn, “American Menu” offers a heaping slice of life in the 1960s, one of the most fraught decades in U.S. history. With the Vietnam War, the conveyor belt of assassinations, riots and civil unrest as the backdrop, the short order kitchen of a whites-only diner in rural Texas is hotter than the grease in the skillet.
It's May 1968, and the quintet of cooks/waitresses are perpetually stressed by the struggle to survive as they go about their daily routines dealing with family responsibilities, wayward husbands/partners, and an unexpected visit by the F.B.I., following an incident regarding a suspicious death.
Martha (Cheryl Bates-White) seems the most beaten down by life. Struggling to raise five children while her husband is in prison, she's considering having an abortion.
Mary (Tajonna Clinton), who lives out in the country, fears going home because a murdered black youth has been found near her home. Her obsession with that case and the threat of further violence grows almost paralyzing.
Buella (Janay Giles), working both the dining room and the kitchen, projects a more upscale image than the others. She may not think she's better than the others, but with plans to attend Texas Southern University in Houston, she feels more ready to escape their world of limited opportunities. The rest resent her friendship with the (unseen) white supervisor — but that relationship turns out to be entangled with secrets about the parenthood of a mixed-race baby Buella hopes to adopt.
Sassy Johnny May (Karla C. Payne) sparks conflict with her outspoken opinions and critiques of the others. Na (Anglique A. Strothers), the seasoned elder, strives to impart her life wisdom and play peacemaker, with varying degrees of success.
After a lifetime of disillusionment, including the recent assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Na insists there's no point trying to force change. She resents outsiders who stir things up and (in her view) leave them to face the locals' backlash. Johnny May argues that change is happening, no matter what any of them do, and she wants to be part of it. She plans to vote for Robert Kennedy in his presidential bid. Alas, we know what will befall that dream just one month later.
Between the personal dramas and social background, American Menu is a plateful of fiber, giving it audience plenty to chew on.
Herb Newsome’s set design provides an authentic vibe that is set-off by a 1960’s playlist that had most of the audience humming along. Dr. Lundeana M. Thomas took full advantage of the talented ensemble she worked with to bring out a heartfelt range of emotion, combining angst and pain with the courage to move forward.
"American Menu" continues Friday through Sunday, February 17-19, at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Homewood branch. For more information: www.newhorizontheater.org