A scene from The Waiting Room
(© Charles E. Rogers)
A scene from The Waiting Room
(© Charles E. Rogers)
"Waiting rooms make people talk," says a character in Samm-Art Williams' new play, The Waiting Room. Presented by the Negro Ensemble Company as part of its 40th anniversary season, this new work by the author of Home takes a potentially dark moment for a family and turns it into a mostly light-hearted comedy where secrets come tumbling out. Not everything in NEC Artistic Director Charles Weldon's production works, but it keeps its audience laughing even during its most ridiculous and unbelievable moments.

The action centers around the African-American Innes family, who live in the small farming community around Bend River, North Carolina. The never-seen Pullen Innes has suffered a heart attack, and his relatives have come to visit, spending a good deal of time in the hospital waiting room. Pullen's brother Pat (Ed Wheeler) and sister Jessie (Elain Graham) are the first to arrive, followed by Pullen's son Riley (Michael Chenevert).

Soon, Gordon MacInnes and his son Casey -- both Caucasians -- also drop in, the former sporting a Confederate flag t-shirt. Riley bristles at what he perceives as Gordon's open racism and can't seem to understand how his aunt and uncle can be Gordon's friends. Before the day is over, however, the truth comes out about both families that bring them closer together than Riley ever would have dreamed.

Williams has a few good one-liners and sets up his farcical plot well. Additionally, he tackles a few contentious subjects in both serious and humorous ways. For example, Pat berates another hospital visitor, Rachael (Messeret Stroman) for giving her daughter some made-up "African" name, saying that her ancestors won't be able to find and protect her without some kind of more familiar moniker that enables them to recognize the child.

The playwright also grants Gordon a compelling defense of the Confederate flag, which gives an interesting perspective on what was done in its name during the Civil War era and what's currently being perpetrated today in regards to the U.S. flag in the international arena.

At times, the dialogue feels over-written and some judicious editing is called for. The various family secrets that come out -- for the Innes family as well as several other characters in the play -- are sometimes awkwardly introduced and stretch credibility. Other sections of the play have a definite poetic ring, such as this early speech by Riley, delivered directly to the audience: "Everyone feels compelled to tell the truth when waiting for some good sign, some good news about a fallen loved one, who now lies in medicated pain, sedated to the core, slowly creeping towards death's door."

The acting ensemble is uneven. Ebony Jo-Ann -- as a hospital visitor named Cookie who puts the moves on Pat -- comes across best with a powerful stage presence and terrific comic timing. Wheeler also gets a good deal of comic mileage out of the overly talkative Pat. Chenevert has several good scenes, particularly surrounding Riley's reactions to his family's secrets, but also has a few awkward moments that don't play as well. Graham has a solid presence, but isn't given that much interesting to do in the play.

Gabrielle Lee, as nurse Hanna Blake, tries too hard, particularly when her character attempts to seduce Riley. The same can be said for both Millkie and Cochrane, both of whom are a bit stiff in their roles. Finally, Stroman demonstrates potential, but her part is too small to effectively gauge her abilities.

While several of the characters end up having complex personal and political positions on different subjects, they could still use more fleshing out. The female characters, in particular, seem underdeveloped. Weldon's staging is often a bit static, and the pacing needs tightening. These flaws, however, didn't seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the audience at the performance I attended.