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Elmina's Kitchen

by Rich See

How can anything good happen to you, when you don't appreciate what you have?

Yvette Ganier and Curtis McClarin
Y. Ganier and C. McClarin (Photo: Richard Anderson)
West Indian fast food becomes the springboard for opportunity and violence in Center Stage's offering of Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen. Set in the present day Hackney area of London, this montage of cultural disempowerment and fascination with testosterone-laden machismo is a fast moving roller coaster ride of emotions.

Written by the playwright as a cautionary tale to his son, the story revolves around three generations of African-Caribbean men and the importance that conscious decision making plays in creating the tone of one's life. While exploring the father-son dynamics of the three generations, Mr. Kwei-Armah also examines the way communities can seemingly change but ultimately stay the same.

As the action opens in the dingy and tattered looking take-out diner named Elmina's Kitchen, Deli, the youngest son of the deceased Elmina, is pondering where his 19-year old son Ashley is spending his time while also anxiously awaiting his older brother Dougie's release from prison. As he prepares orders, his friend Digger (an enforcer for a local criminal gang) pontificates on the sad state of affairs in the world -- most notably the changing dynamics of the street and the introduction of a younger generation who have no regard for the old ways of criminal life. While Digger beats his own drum about his marvelous abilities to maim and destroy, Deli is haunted by his own inability to become the champion prize fighter that everyone expected him to be. He has instead opted for a way of life which does not involve violence -- much to the disgust of his only son Ashley who covets a job as a gang enforcer. Into this mix enters Anastasia, a self-help book toting cook who has romantic intentions towards Deli. Fast on her heels enters Clifton, Deli's deadbeat dad, who left his family to return to Grenada 20 years before. Soon battle lines are drawn as Anastasia, Digger, Ashley, and Clifton vie for Deli's soul and empowerment. Throughout, Baygee, the friend who emigrated to Britain with Clifton and Elmina, wanders in as a voice of jubilant life in a mix of death and decay.

Director Marion McClinton has brought together a cast of excellent actors, who seem completely in sync with each other. He's paced the action to be taut and the timing well-delivered. Although the heavy accents are a detriment to understanding some of the dialogue and a cheat sheet of Caribbean phrases in the program would have been helpful, the audience is able to follow along and fill in any blanks that emerge from the language barrier.

Scenic Designer Neil Patel has created a realistically looking greasy diner that cleans up into a charming local eatery. The LeRoy Neiman-like British flag that frames the stage is very impressive, even more so since you may not notice it until the house lights go down and then it gently emerges from the shadows.

Among the cast Curtis McClarin's Deli is a wonderful example of disempowerment working to become empowered. While he continuously acquiesces to everyone around him -- including his own disdainful and spoiled son -- he is at the same time attempting to find his own inner sense of self that is not based upon validation from violence, number of women he sleeps with, or attacking every small slight that may come his way. He is in fact, a man who has outgrown his family, friends, and community; unfortunately he sees himself as such a constant victim that he sabotages his every attempt to move outside his peer circle. Yvette Ganier's Anastasia sees the potential within Deli and thus becomes an immediate threat to the men who wish to contain Deli's inner spirit. Both Mr. McClarin and Ms. Ganier do a wonderful slow dance in their characters' budding relationship.

As the hitman Digger, Thomas Jefferson Byrd comes across as equally creepy and eccentrically entertaining. Looking part street punk and part homeless man, the role he plays as death's agent is both literal and figurative. LeRoy McClain's spoiled and sulky Ashley is so immensely annoying that one wonders why Deli didn't throw him out of the house when he came of age. Yet at the same time, you see where Deli has failed his son, thus allowing Ashley to become the over-inflated ego that he has grown into. As Deli's father Clifton, Sullivan Walker portrays the self-interest and fear of the older man with charm and glee. His ability to quickly ensconce himself into Deli's home quickly shows us how disempowered Deli actually maintains himself.

Ernest Perry's Baygee is the levying sound of laughter and sanity. Although he lives in this ghetto of despair, he never sees the decay, but instead focuses on the life -- even when discussing death. He's funny, entertaining and provides a smile whenever he is on stage.

Although not a perfect play, Elmina's Kitchen offers some extremely good performances framed by wonderful production values. As a cautionary tale, its greatest strength is in showing us how our small, daily choices can have great repercussions in our lives, to the point of keeping us in a toxic environment that is detrimental to our soul.

Editor's Note: To read our London critic's review of this play go here.

Elmina's Kitchen
by Kwame Kwei-Armah
Directed by Marion McClinton
with Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Yvette Ganier, LeRoy McClain, Curtis McClarin, Ernest Perry, Jr., Sullivan Walker
Scenic Design: Neil Patel
Lighting Design: Michelle Habeck
Costume Design: David Burdick
Sound Design: Shane Rettig
Fight Director: David Leong
Dialect Consultant: Gillian Lane-Plescia
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore
Telephone: 410-332-0033
TUE - SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2, SUN @7:30; $10 - $60
Opening 12/31/04, closing 01/30/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 01/06/05 performance
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