Farewell, Miss Cotton
by Willard Manus
Keith Josef Adkins' FAREWELL, MISS COTTON has a lot going for it--too much, actually. The play, which won the August Wilson Memorial Playwriting Award and is in its world premiere at the Black Dahlia Theatre, deals with a slew of issues, characters and situations. The dense, complex plot centers around Theo (Hugh Dane, in a powerful performance), an angry, cantankerous old man who once had a moment of glory and happiness playing trumpet at Cincinnati's Cotton Club in its post WW II heyday. Things went wrong for him after that; he (literally) burned all his bridges, turned on his family, became homeless and even contemplated suicide.
His fall from grace mirrored the fate of the Cotton Club and the African-American community that supported it. White flight and the collapse of the inner city resulted in unemployment and despair, gang and drug infestation. The Club itself was torched and became a crack house.
When the play opens Theo is living "on a trial basis" with his ex-drug dealer grandson Robin (Arnell Powell) and lesbian daughter-in-law Dezzie (Juanita Jennings). Theo spends most of his time on the internet railing against the impending yuppification of the neighborhood, something Robin and Dezzie favor strongly, even if it means turning the Cotton Club into a "cheesecake factory." It's progress and progress means jobs, money, hope and, in Dezzie's case, love.
When the internet connects him with a lost love, Imani-Lives (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), and A.W. (Jeris Lee Poindexter), both of whom shared the stage with him in the Cotton Club's heyday, Theo persuades them to join him in battle against the developers and yuppies. Their resulting comic misadventures are in keeping with the play's overall tone of black, salty humor.
Trouble is, Adkins muddies the narrative waters by suggesting that Theo might have Alzheimer's. Does that mean everything that's happening is simply a disconnected fantasy on his part? We are also asked to believe that Theo would betray and sabotage his own family in a misguided attempt to derail the Coming of the Yuppies.
Then too, his relatives and a hiphop friend of Robin's, David (Ryan Johnston), disappear completely in Act Two, leaving the stage and the past/future quarrel to Theo, A.W. and Imani-Lives. As a result, it becomes obvious that FAREWELL, MISS COTTON would have worked better as a three-character play. It would have repeated itself less and stopped zigzagging all over the place while dealing with the largely irrelevant (and cartoonish) Robin, David and Dezzie the Lezzie.
FAREWELL, MISS COTTON has heart, power and ideas. The actors--and director Larry Biederman--fight valiantly to bring those qualities to the forefront, but are defeated by the play's inherent structural weaknesses.
Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd. Call 866-468-3300 or visit thedahlia.com