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The Grandmama Tree

Catey Sullivan reviews a mystical, familial, prize-winning work by playwright Bernard Cummins. logo
L to R: Eliyannah A. Yisrael,
Elizabeth Shivers, Ira Carol McGill.
Photo Credit: Ken Simmons.
A clash between cultures, generations, and attitudes bubbles, hisses, and eventually explodes in The Grandmama Tree: A Folk Fable, at eta Creative Arts Foundation, one of Chicago's leading African-American performing arts organizations. Even the geography between ancient Mama Olun, a wise old woman of the woods, and the troubled young urban dwellers whose lives she intersects, is rough terrain. A midwife who has given up on "modern" culture and taken up residence in a forest, and a streetwise, pregnant 14-year-old girl living in a bullet-flecked house surely have nothing to say to each other. Or do they?

It's obvious from the start that such different individuals have a great deal to learn from each other, but that which is obvious is not a weakness in Benard Cummings' sometimes-mystical tale of rifts getting mended across familial, cultural, and geographic lines. With The Grandmama Tree, which won the 1998 Theodore Ward Prize for Playwriting, Cummings tells a necessary story. And although the resonance of Cummings' tale is too often distorted by director Delia Coy Gray's glacial pacing, the core of the piece remains intact.

In this three generation play, Sharefa (Eliyannah A. Yisrael) is the pregnant 14-year-old. A headstrong, mouthy teenager, Sharefa has seen her share of early deaths and unnecessary violence, and she needs strong guidance more than she knows or is willing to admit. That guidance is not likely to come from her mother, Alvarice (Elizabeth Shivers), who must deal with various stresses of her own, including the fact that her daughter has gotten pregnant by the teenage boy who shot her son.

Into their world steps Mama Olun (Ira Carol McGill), a wild-haired old woman whom we first see laying her hands on a massive tree, unmistakably receiving a message of healing from the trunk. Mama Olun, a midwife to five generations, is now viewed as a relic whose naturalistic folk wisdom is deemed useless and irrelevant by Alvarice and Sharefa. The younger women, however, can't deny their need for spiritual support--what is missing in their current lives--and Mama Olun senses this.

Yes, the situation is complicated enough to fill a soap opera, but playwright Cummings surprisingly manages to steer clear of pathos and melodrama, given the intricacies of the plot he's constructed.

As Sharefa, Eliyannah A. Yisrael does a fine job depicting an arrogant teenager whose sassy self-assurance is a defense mechanism against deeply rooted insecurities. Edward Lee Shines III, as the father-to-be, starts out as a sullen, angry young man on the lam. During his first encounter with Mama Olun, he even pulls a gun on the old woman. But the Mama Olun of Ira Carol McGill is as stubborn and insistent as any adolescent, gun-toting or not. Drawing Sharefa and Alfonso out to the woods for ceremonies of healing and mystical lessons in family history, Mama Olun succeeds in instilling both ancestral pride and self-pride into the young parents-to-be.

Yet the real stand-out in The Grandmama Tree is Elizabeth Shivers as the exasperated, hard-working, bone-tired Alvarice. Shivers has a way of snapping out her lines so they are both comical and touching.

The Grandmama Tree: A Folk Fable is rich with symbols of the power of the family and the power of the natural earth. One such is a literal embodiment of Grandma Olun's healing powers, a leaf-twined spirit dancer (Quinton T. James) who appears as Mama Olun ponders the difficulties that face her.

Set designer Jennifer Hutchison has done a fine job in creating two entirely separate worlds onstage: a harsh, urban environment characterized by bullet-scarred walls and asphalt, and Mama Olun's gentle, magic, lushly green forest.

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