Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
When: through April 22
By ANNE SPISELMAN
It takes a lot of chutzpah to write a farce about racism and reparations. But with the world premiere of “Plantation!” at Lookingglass Theatre, ensemble member Kevin Douglas pulls it off—partly. A good deal of the credit goes to director David Schwimmer and the first-rate all-female cast, though the 95-minute-long one act is deeply flawed.
The premise is farfetched but not beyond belief. Lillian Wright (the incomparable Janet Ulrich Brooks), matriarch of the family that owns the vast Texas cotton plantation, finds documents in the basement that make her realize her home and fortune were built on slave labor. She also discovers that great-great-grandfather Wright, the founder whose portrait hangs prominently in the ornate drawing room stunningly designed by Courtney O’Neill, had a favorite slave, Sarah, who he never sold and with whom he fathered a son. Using the internet and other means, Lillian has tracked down Sarah’s descendents, Wanting to make restitution for all the wrong done to them and their ancestors, she’s invited them to the plantation with the intent of giving it to them.
However, she hasn’t told them this in advance (she just said she had a gift for them), and they arrive just before she breaks the news to her own three daughters. Though primed by mom’s questions about what they would do to make the world better, they are aghast when Lillian reveals her plan to basically disinherit them. The visitors are shocked, too, and have varied reactions. Mayhem ensues as the white Wright girls hatch various plots to discredit the black women in their mother’s eyes, descending from simply digging up dirt to resorting to racist scare tactics. Needless to say, their machinations backfire.
While some scenes and lines are hilarious, one shortcoming is that Douglas stacks the deck by making the white sisters totally selfish, spoiled, entitled losers. Kimberly (Louise Lamson gives it her all), the eldest and a would-be actress, is the monstrous ringleader so self-absorbed that she treats Diana (Hannah Gomez), who is filling in as housekeeper while her mother is visiting relatives in Guatemala, like a slave. Kara (Linsey Page Morton), the middle one who is in charge of running the family cotton business, is a ditzy emotional basket case clueless enough to point out to the black visitors that she and her sibling’s initials are “KKK.” Kayley (Grace Smith), the youngest, is a quiet college dropout who hides her drugs around the house.
The African American Wright sisters, who come from Chicago, fare better, though they also are stereotypes. London (Lily Mojekwu), the oldest, is a positive-thinking life coach who had her own dark days after her parents died. Middle sister Sydney (Ericka Ratcliff) is a Black Lives Matter activist with a chip on her shoulder and a penchant for writing performance poetry so bad it makes her younger sister Madison (Tamberla Perry), a sex-obsessed “influencer” and fashionista, leave the room.
Some crucial plot points simply defy credulity. Kara is so obviously inept that it’s hard to accept that Lillian, who comes across as a smart, savvy woman, would entrust running the family business to her. Even more absurd is the idea that the business could go under just because a FedEx delivery to a client didn’t arrive on time, something that happens and fuels the white Wright’s panic. It’s also a bit too pat that Diana happens to be a notary who can handle the paperwork for Lillian’s gift on the spot.
While the serious point isn’t integrated into the comedy as well as it could be, and the door-slamming farcical segment doesn’t work, the evening affords a number of pleasures ranging from Brook’s spot-on Lillian to Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes. They peak with the antebellum ball gowns the women don for fancy period dinner, all except Diana who is dressed as a Mammy, head scarf and all.
“Plantation!” is exploring fertile territory. It just needs some reshaping and refining to be truly fruitful.