SISTER TALK: Cunningham (right), with Brevett, in a scene from the stage play.
Joyce James feels like someone you know – the grandaunt who makes a finger-lickin’ meringue pie, the choirmistress at your local Baptist church. In Mama Please Take Me Back to Church, a stirring though uneven faith-based drama, she’s the titular matriarch, a staunchly devoted Christian, who holds her family together with that old-fashioned mix of scripture and selfless commitment. She is portrayed with steely resolve and compassion by ageless actress Dorothy Cunningham, who is unsurprisingly the best thing about the show. Her monologues as narrator, inviting us to accompany her on this reflective journey, are sharply observed and poignantly rendered.
Written and directed by Andrew Roache, who has a few minor hits under his belt, the stage drama explores themes of womanhood, redemption, family and failure, but it sometimes feels preachy. Still, Roach’s haunting and true-to-life depiction of the ties that bind and mother-daughter dynamics will resonate with you.
Cunningham’s Joyce, a Jamaican living in a New York suburb with her grouchy younger sis Debbie (Samantha Brevett), has two gorgeous but vastly dissimilar daughters who are her world. The career-driven Keturah (Sabrina Thomas) is committed to her job as a district attorney though she’s having “problems”, while Mary (Petrova Kenward) is the outgoing sibling still trying to find herself.
They are perfect foils of each other, but Mama Joyce loves them equally, even though she regularly butts heads with them over opposing views on Christianity in today’s world – a recurring subject throughout the play. To say the least, the daughters, no longer impressionable girls, have very strong opinions about religion and the role it plays in modern society.
The family is shaken to the core when an on-the-job attack lands Keturah in the hospital battling for life. It’s an episode that forces the young woman to look deep within for answers and consider what truly matters the most to her. Luckily, she has the ideal confidante in her God-fearing mama to turn to.
The up-close arrangement of the stage and audience seating inside the Hope Road-based YMCA gymnasium lends the show a very intimate vibe that ratchets up the rapport between actors and viewers. It’s a connection that lingers throughout, even during the moments that lull. As for the story itself, a few bases are left uncovered. The absent father figure, for instance, is put through the ringer by the daughters but we never learn the truth about why he’s not in the picture. To wit, what we do learn about these four women is very limited.
Still, they do make quite an impression, and the actresses who portray them (all fresh faces except for Cunningham, of course) give performances that are alternately intense and heartfelt. You gets lots of tears, a whole lot of venting and ample reminder that prayer works and forgiveness heals. Tyrone’s Verdict: B-