Playwright: Cheryl L. West. At: eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. Tickets: 773-752-3955; www.etacreativearts.org; $30. Runs through: May 12
Four generations of African-American women gather to bicker and celebrate in Cheryl L. West's 1999 off-Broadway drama, now receiving an enjoyable production by eta Creative Arts Foundation that vastly improves from its shaky start.
What brings all these women together is the 90th birthday party of the recently widowed matriarch MaDear (Shirl Shang), whose grip on reality is increasingly tenuous as she flashes back to her Mississippi youth. MaDear's caretaker is her university professor granddaughter, Maydee (Nicole Michelle Haskins), and boy, is she stressed.
Not only is Maydee awaiting an impending decision about tenure, her player mother, Lola (Felisha McNeal), is coming for the party. So is Maydee's heavily tattooed and pierced college-age daughter, Venni (Krystel McNeil), who has a surprise to reveal with her new Jewish lesbian lover, Raisa (Amanda Hartley). Then Maydee also has to deal with the stress that comes from caring for MaDear, who has started to shatter the mirrors in their tasteful African-decorated Park Forest home.
Within this family crucible, arguments and verbal attacks are launched and past resentments and recriminations are raised. But other than a mass-pile-up of mother vs. daughter revelations that becomes a bit much toward the end, West's Jar the Floor is an amusingly structured show that allows the audience to take sides and consider the feats and flaws of these women who truly love each other, no matter how much they cut each other down.
Jar the Floor also serves as an African-American history lesson told through the women's personal experiences, including in the Great Migration from the South and the push for African heritage of the 1970s.
Ilesa Duncan's production of Jar the Floor unfortunately starts off poorly. The whole sequence involving MaDear's early-morning mirror-smashing is confusingly staged and dimly lit with acting that from Shang as MaDear and Haskins as Maydee that fails to show each other's frustration with aging and caring for a mind-wandering relative.
But as the show progresses, the staging and the performances pick up and start to cookespecially with the arrival of the dance-loving McNeal as Lola (the role was played off-Broadway by late Joliet-native Lynne Thigpen and she won an Obie Award for her efforts).
Shang and Haskins redeem themselves later on with emotionally grounded performances, especially when they get to deal with the artsy vibe of McNeil as Venni and the all-out-to-please kindness of Hartley as Raisa (though the fact that her character is a breast cancer survivor feels like a symbolic plot device at times).
With its mix of sharp dramatic bickering and great belly laughs, Jar the Floor is a fun, celebratory drama that eventually comes out ahead. It's no wonder the audience just lapped it all up.