Plays that involve two characters (preferably strangers, and ideally philosophical opposites) trapped together under unlikely circumstances are nothing new. I’ve seen plays in which shipwrecks, earthquakes, race riots and even nuclear war intervened in the opening scene, setting up a tableau in which the people involved—stuck for the duration, with not a lot to do—get acquainted with someone that they otherwise might never have noticed. They talk about their respective problems, and eventually, as the external circumstances subside, move on, somewhat wiser for the experience. Sisters is a play on this reliable model, featuring two African-American women. The particulars in this case are:
” Olivia, 31, never married, college educated (and then some), a hard-driving TV advertising professional who hasn’t seen her family in years, doesn’t have a boyfriend, and is totally devoted to her career.
” Cassie, 41, a single mom with a 9-year-old kid (big difference); she’s also a high-school drop out, but no dummy. She may have an almost invisible presence in the big Atlanta advertising firm where both women work, but she’s a capable judge of human character, and doesn’t mind saying what’s on her mind when the right opportunity arises.
More to the point, Cassie is a cleaning lady, rag in hand, working on New Year’s Eve. And Cassie is by no means amused that Olivia (who’s moving out of her office) has the floor cluttered with boxes, making it impossible for Cassie to finish her job.
The intervention that isolates these two? A snowstorm—admittedly not much of a natural disaster, but then it doesn’t take much in the way of white stuff to bring Atlanta to a grinding halt.
Once the electricity fails and the two women realize they’re going to have to ride things out, their conversation turns to a series of mutual observations and confessions.
At first, they find fault with each other. Cassie wants to smoke, Olivia won’t hear of it. Olivia listens to Muzak™; Cassie wants classic Motown and Aretha Franklin. Cassie thinks that the fashion conscious Olivia’s high-heeled shoes are impractical and painful to wear, and needles her when she notices that she’s switched into tennis shoes now that no one important is around.
Olivia, the career woman, is a bit dismissive of Cassie’s apparent need to organize her life around others—men in particular. The distinctions are further underlined by Olivia’s big college vocabulary and Cassie’s street talk—though Cassie consistently gets the better of these exchanges. They get onto the topic of literature as well (a bit of a stretch if you’re being deliberately realistic), with special attention going to Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison—not for Song of Solomon or Beloved, but for Morrison’s early novel Sula, which some adore but others have found a tough nut to crack.
Inevitably, a bottle of liquor comes out as well—after all, it’s New Year’s Eve. And at this point, the two women discuss the men they’ve known, and it quickly becomes clear that Cassie (being older, and having had a less sheltered youth) is far more knowledgeable about “the pleasures that the flesh can surely yield” (to paraphrase Aretha). Funny thing how raising a kid can do that to an adult.
Playwright Marsha Jackson-Randolph is dealing cards from something of a stacked deck here. Several of the plot developments can be spotted a long way off, and the supporting architecture of conscious role model comparison is a little too obvious at times. Sisters doesn’t have the sort of dramatic or literary heft possessed by some of the prize-winning plays by Athol Fugard or August Wilson that Celebration Arts has staged locally—one of the very few groups interested in doing so, and God bless them for seeing the mission through.
But even though the script is somewhat slight, it’s honestly exuberant. It’s also placed in the right slot (New Year’s Eve is coming up), and the cast includes two actresses from the CSU Sacramento program who do very well by their parts.
Danielle Mone Thrower, a junior at CSUS, does a good job portraying Olivia’s conflicting urges to rise to the top in the advertising biz, and her personal disgust when she runs dead up against the proverbial glass ceiling.
And Chinyere Anyawu shines in scene after scene as Cassie. Admittedly, Anyawu (a recent CSUS grad) is a little on the young side to be playing a 41-year-old with a fast-growing son. But even if her face could use a few more pain lines, Anyawu is deeply connected to her character, and she’s a pleasure to watch throughout.
Director Linda Goodrich moves her two characters adeptly through Ron Dumonchelle’s attractive set (which itself makes the most of the small Celebration Arts stage). Goodrich introduces clever little actions here and there, and makes intelligent use of shouted dialogue from backstage. A two-hander play like this one doesn’t have to be visually dull, after all. Goodrich’s direction keeps this show moving at times when it could easily have lapsed into trite exchanges.
This isn’t the biggest show in town, or necessarily the finest script, but it comes with a warm payoff.