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Fun House 

One of my first theater experiences in New Orleans, after I arrived in January 1972, was a show at Dashiki Theater. I had been in Europe for about eight years, leading the exciting, if insecure, life of an expatriate. I had heard about the black theater movement back home. So having debarked here (from a freighter, no less), I was intrigued to read in the now-defunct Vieux Carré Courier about New Orleans' own black theater movement.

One night, I drove up to the Dashiki Theater, which was in a church hall on Second Street at the time. My trepidation about whether I would be welcome or not was quickly allayed by a courteous reception at the box office. I soon became a fan of this talented group. In fact, I made some friends and the very first play that I did in New Orleans featured a few Dashiki players. One of them -- Adella Gautier (also known as Adella Adella the Story Teller) -- is featured as a "Dashiki Diva" in the grand reunion cast currently on stage at the Anthony Bean Community Theater. The other returning divas are Carol Sutton, Gwendolyne Foxworth, Patricia McGuire Hill, Donna King and Marie Slade Weatherspoon.

If you're an old-line Dashiki fan like me, you ought to get yourself to House Warming for nostalgia, if for no other reason. Fortunately, there are other reasons -- fun, for instance, of which there's plenty. Another is Phyllis Clemons, who wrote the script. Clemons is a New Orleans native who has penned a good half-dozen plays and monologues that have been produced here. She also wrote the books for a bunch of children's shows by the Uptown Music Theater (Delfayo Marsalis composed the music). In short, "girl power" -- African-American style -- is much in evidence in this effort. However, the divas did graciously allow Anthony Bean to do the stage direction.

House Warming is about the painting of an apartment. Four grown daughters paint their mother's house. In the process, sibling rivalry rears its ugly head in a variety of comic ways. Violette (Carol Sutton) is the mama, and she's got quite an explosive brood. Button (Patricia McGuire Hill) thinks quite a bit of herself. After all, she knows the DA! Teedy (Adella Gautier), on the other hand, has a knack for romantic adventures; she flirted with a painter at Home Depot, and he's the one who's supposed to paint Violette's house. Maybe. Sort of. Anyway, he dropped off the paint and disappeared. Nelda, poor thing, has discovered her husband has been cheating on her, so she's left home and wants to move back in with her mama. But, the family has always been mean to her -- in her opinion. For instance, all the other girls have wonderful nicknames, and she doesn't. There's Button and Teedy and Cookie. "But Nelda," her sisters remind her, "you were the one who gave us the nicknames in the first place."

Much of the humor of House Warming comes from that sort of tempest in a teapot. Family jealousies and resentments cause explosions, but leave no real damage behind. Life goes on in its helter skelter way. Some of the most enjoyable moments seem to have no logic at all, like the song numbers the sisters do to radio accompaniment. "Proud Mary" may never be the same.

In some ways, the Dashiki Diva reunion mirrors the family situation and helps to hold the play together. Not that the divas suffer from seething, hidden, sibling-like rivalries. Maybe they do, but I wouldn't know about that. (Although, I must say that, in general, the idea of more than one diva onstage at a time does seem to invite bloodshed.) But there is a palpable affection and a sense of a shared past that radiates from this group of actresses. They bring out what fun is to be had in the script, and their spirited shenanigans carry us merrily past the places that seem a bit out of focus. Perhaps those moments that lack focus come from our expectation that a play will tell a story. For better or worse, House Warming doesn't really tell a story. It plays a comic fugue combining five stories: the four sisters and their mom. Congratulations to artistic director Bean, playwright Clemons and the Dashiki Divas for this happy bracketing of a new play and a veteran cast. Here's hoping we'll see more from this group in the future.

click to enlarge The Dashiki Divas reunite onstage at Anthony Bean for a little House Warming.
  • The Dashiki Divas reunite onstage at Anthony Bean for a little House Warming.
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