It’s a comedy, a drama, an ode to sisterhood. Heck, it’s even something of a musical. It proudly has a lot of tones it wants to embrace, but the joy of Darren Canady’s new play Right On is that even when it’s swirling around it’s never less than entertaining.
Now playing at Horizon Theatre through August 31, it’s the second Atlanta world premiere for playwright Canady, following his Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition winning False Creeds at the Alliance Theatre back in 2007. At a university, circa 2004, four women reunite for a 30-year college reunion during their alma mater’s homecoming weekend. They were tight-knit, idealistic and politically minded back then. They were also known for a variety act/student showcase they staged. Three of them want to perform it again but one is dead-set against it.
That would be Bella (Donna Biscoe), who used to be the group’s leader, a political dynamo who wasn’t afraid to stick her neck out for her beliefs. Now she has a tony, corporate executive job and has returned merely to give a speech to the collegiate women in business organization. She has cut off the others. Her former best friend Patrice (Minka Wiltz) has a job working only a few floors down from Bella but the two don’t speak. Patrice dropped out of college and has raised two kids. The other two women are Sharonda (Marguerite Hannah), a lawyer and something of a peacemaker, and Janice (Tonia Jackson) a club owner and life of the party type. Outside of Bella, three other women are on much better terms. Joining the four for homecoming is Ronald (LaParee Young) a one-time romantic interest of more than one of the women, and Bella’s son Kyle (Dane Troy), who is headed to Harvard but is in Bella-induced therapy battling mental illness.
A lot of conflicts are here, most notably running through the icy veins of Bella. She is cold and unforgiving, refusing to let an incident from decades ago slip her memory. Naturally, she and Kyle don’t get along either.
Right On can be a little broad at times and some of the women’s various issues can be superfluous. Yet Canady’s work is observant and often quite well-written. The women have some wonderful exchanges reminiscing about their college experiences versus where they are now. Patrice expected the four would change the world, while Sharonda counters that they just opened the doors. There’s also a lot of truth in what some of the characters say about race in America, not just in the ’70s but today as well.
Yet Canady never lets the story get overbearingly heavy. Just when the women are diving into testy matters, he interrupts the flow to let them jive to a Dancing Machine number. Right On ends with a medley of songs from the cast that includes some catchy original music from S. Renee Clark.
The entire cast is commendable, even if some roles are better etched than others. Young has a nice moment when he lays into Bella and zaps her with the truth. Troy makes the son a nice foil, and calming presence, for his biting mother, while Horizon veterans Hannah and Jackson bring sassiness and humor to their roles. Hannah’s Sharonda has faced a life changing experience that has shaded how she sees the world now.
Yet this ultimately will be remembered for Biscoe and Wiltz. Both women are firmly in character. Wiltz is her usual effervescent self, a jealous friend who has been in Bella’s shadow all her life, mad but remorseful. Biscoe’s tightly wound Bella never lets up. She seems to have burned bridges with every one she faces and the actress never seeks sympathy or hides the character’s ugly side. If the others bring heart to the play, it’s Biscoe’s intensity that makes it all matter.
Under the sure-handed direction of Thomas W. Jones II, another Horizon Theater veteran, Right On is a summer treat — light and easy to digest, but smart. It’s hard not to like a production with this kind of cast — and one with the verve to end with the foursome slapping on wigs and running through some funky, soulful numbers. Right on indeed!