This review will not yield any profound insight, no analysis of greatness, no discovery of literary genius, untapped ability, and there is nothing new about this particular production which we have all seen before, which actually speaks quite frankly to an exceedingly rising tide of emerging inspirational play productions that have become very popular within Detroit’s inner-city art community. But unlike the many inspirational gospel play I’ve attended, Je McClain’s new play Flawed Beautiful People, at the newly renovated Light House Theatre, boiled, rippled and percolated before settling to a simmering calm of dramatic success.
Flawed Beautiful People is an inspirational stage play. Kevin Tates plays young, enthusiastic minister named Steven who struggles with the duality of living a righteous and holy life versus a secular and sinful one. He soon discovers that those whom he views as exemplary role models have fallen short of the glory. In the end no one is as holy as they appear: the bishop is scandalous, the women are loose, Sister Melanie is an undercover prostitute, and Sister Shirley is blasphemous and foul-mouthed. Kevin must choose between a secular lifestyle and a Christian lifestyle.
The cast of Flawed Beautiful People are indeed flawed and beautiful and loaded with the usual suspects seen in most inspirational/gospel plays: a call-and-response congregation, a dramatic preacher, a down-low harlot, a slick-talking hustler, a do-right woman, a do-wrong woman and the proverbial wise-cracking know-it-all. The most unsuspecting character typically upstages and steals the entire show: LaToya Hammond’s irascible “Sister Smith” and Tamara Adkins’ cantankerous “Sister Shirley” certainly kept this production afloat with their slapstick humor and witty personalities. Both characters certainly pushed the comedic drive of this drama, at times teetering between the two delicate balances of buffoonery and stereotype, but stirred with dramatic intensity and good timing both actresses anchored the play and made the rest of the scenes work.
New actor Chris Satchell gave a winning performance as a conflicted preacher, and Shannon Banks’ loquacious “Keita” struggled to avoid the classic portrayal of a termagant, neck-jerking, gesticulating stereotype. Satchell gave “Bishop” depth and character and all the human qualities of a man truly grappling with faith, wrestling with the stronger and relentless evils of lust and sex. Celeste Hill also provided a fairly noteworthy performance, while the remaining unremarkable cast members – Terrell Woodhouse, Robin Davis, Kymberli Foster, Robert Matthews, Verniecia Williams, Noelle Fry and Allen Stewart – worked like viable aqueducts to a mighty stream of energetic talent.
On the other hand, Flawed Beautiful People is not without flaws. McClain’s scenes are pithy but stylish; the soundtrack lacked purpose and intention; and the lighting was inadequate. At certain moments the action seemed fragmented and discordant and some performances lacked motion and rhythm. The Light House stage seemed unaccommodating to McClain’s complex multi-scene setting, oftentimes seeming cluttered and stuffed like a crowded dollhouse. She later explained her decision to stage her play at a place undergoing renovations rather than choose another of the city’s many theatre locations: “I chose this place because I was here before and I greatly admired the way they staff here at the Lighthouse handled my production.” When asked to elaborate on how differently Light House Theatre owners handled her compared to other local stage houses, McClain touched on what has become a reverberating concern within the Detroit playwright community: “Firstly, for an up-and-coming playwright it is kind of hard to find theatre space on a small budget, particularly one which seats a lot of people. So here at Lighthouse they were willing to work with my limited budget. Secondly, they were in the process of renovating but elected to forestall renovations on this side of the building so that I could move forward with my production.”
McClain likes T. J. Hemphill’s and Dennis Reed’s work; she believes Flawed Beautiful People to be her best work; and as for the state of Detroit’s African American theatre, she believes “we need affordable stages and money for production staffs.” She hopes city government allocates economic resources for Detroit’s writing community. In the meantime, McClain will move forward with her productions; her daughter and son and co-worker and friends and associates will serve as production staff. The show must go on.