Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured (back): Ericka Ratcliff, Louise Lamson, and Grace Smith. (front): Tamberla Perry and Lily Mojekwu. Photo by Liz Lauren.
By Sheri Flanders
Writing a successful comedy about racism in America is hard. Writing an honest comedy about racism in America where both whites and blacks laugh is practically sorcery. Yet through the deft writing of extraordinarily talented playwright Kevin Douglas, and buoyed by the light sitcom directing style of David Schwimmer, PLANTATION!, the viciously hilarious comedy at Lookingglass Theatre, succeeds at the impossible.
When Texas matriarch Lillian decides to give her plantation home to the slave descendants of her family as reparations, her immediate family is aghast. Real morality and sacrifice are supposed to come from activists and saints – not regular people. Plantation asks the liberal audience why we refuse to live our values – and the answers are most uncomfortable indeed.
This kind of judgment could immediately turn off a mostly white audience in less capable hands, yet Janet Ulrich Brooks’ dexterous and light depiction of Lillian gives the audience a flawed yet ultimately worthy hero to identify with as a security blanket during this rough ride. Lillian’s daughters Kara (Linsey Page Morton) Kayley (Grace Smith) and Kimberly (Louise Lamson) are distraught at the possibility of the loss of their childhood home and filter their dissent through a variety of less-than-enlightened perspectives. The script spins off America’s worst traits into the daughters, allowing the audience to successfully disassociate themselves from the full weight of the indictment and fully participate in the fun.
Morton’s bubbly and earnest depiction of Kara, the well-meaning yet dumb one, is a classic comedy trope that is allowed to breathe freely and take on a dimension other than a sexist punchline in an all-female cast. Smith is modern and relatable as the “woke” yet apathetic Kayley, the poster child for Millenials (which has now become a category for anyone young, rather than an actual generational descriptor), and Lamson plays a deliciously love-to-hate spoiled and racist southern belle Kimberly. It is rare that women get to play villainous characters without being weak, tragic or cautionary tales. Lamson gets to lean into this role and relish being an unapologetic baddie, providing the crackling energy for the play through the second act.
As the white family meets the black members of their extended, illicit family tree, the plot thickens considerably. One of the most exciting facets of new works that feature black stories is seeing tropes from the black community come alive onstage. Lily Mojekwu is delightful as London, the eldest, conservative sister, who represents the kind of blackness that white America finds most palatable. She is a contemporary of Lillian; mature poised and successful – and not without flaws. Ericka Ratcliff plays Sydney, the militant and outspoken one, and the version of blackness that America fears the most. Through Ratcliff’s charming personality, and under Schwimmer’s direction, her character is played with depth, humanity and humor. The last sister Madison (Tamberla Perry), is young and media obsessed. Perry portrays her character with a sense of light and youthful exuberance that is rarely afforded to black female roles onstage.
Throughout the kerfuffle, the family is assisted by the housekeeper Diana (Hannah Gomez) who plays the painfully familiar role of the “help,” walking the fine line between professional obsequiousness and self-respect. Diana feels underwritten compared to the others, but Gomez gives a stellar performance, punctuated by hilarious one-liners.
The play clips on with expertly written drawing room banter until the climax. Without giving anything away, I felt that this was the first moment in the play that Douglas pulls a punch, and the scene floats too far towards the sitcom realm, as it does not fully acknowledge the weight of the moment. There was a missed opportunity to examine Kimberly’s motivations and the parallels between her life and that of the family patriarch. After that, things move forward to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
PLANTATION! is a hilarious, emotionally complex play, presented by an ensemble of expertly talented actors, that leaves us with the notion that true righteousness does not feel comfortable and self-assured, nor should it. PLANTATION is worth squirming in your seat for.
PLANTATION! runs through April 22nd. For more information visit lookingglasstheatre.org.