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‘Wifetime’: Night of lighthearted comedy

BY Ann Bennett

The UC Santa Cruz African American Theater Arts Troupe bounded onto the stage at the Performing Arts Concert Hall last weekend and immediately made an important point: Lighthearted comedy is definitely color-blind. The company’s production of Celeste Walker’s amusing "Once in A Wifetime" chronicles a black middle-class American’s attempts to connect up to his African heritage - most particularly the aspect of it that deals with polygamy - with predictably humorous results - and the ensuing jokes are not dependent on ethnicity for their success.

The play moves from UCSC to the Louden Nelson Center in Santa Cruz for performances this weekend, and then heads south for an appearance in Seaside. It’s no great drama; in fact it bears a close resemblance to the standard "situation comedy" format; and you can almost imagine its basic premise as a point of departure for a series of similar comedy shows.

But the playwright obviously has fun with her characters and their lives - she makes fine use of broad sketches and doesn’t hesitate to make stereotypical racial perceptions work on her advantage. The resulting spoof provided an evening of lightweight entertainment that was definitely appreciated by an enthusiastic opening night audience.

"Once in a Wifetime" doesn’t come up with any unexpected surprises or plot tricks, and depends entirely on the traditional comedy style of romantic characters gone awry. Direct Don Williams evidently enjoys the fun of permitting his cast a wide range of emotional freedom, and they in turn throw subtlety to windows, playing their roles with broad humor and indulging themselves in almost slapstick parody.

Jamile Garrett captivates everyone with an energetic interpretation of Kweli, a catalyst and con artist of great charm. Eric Jackson is an able protagonist, a modest man who achieves his romantic fantasy only to find himself entangled to the middle of a domestic nightmare.

Susanne E. Hobbs is delightfully convincing as the clever Irma, and Nandi Ellis has a great time as the new wife in the household. Shawntaviya Holmes is very funny as momma, playing out her character with purposely overstated parody, but her tendency to throw her lines into the scenery result in the loss of what I suspect are a lot of good jokes.

Michael Stanton works hard to provide sophistication and international charm in the pivotal role of emile, but he just can’t pull it off. Maybe because he’s having too much fun with the one meager joke.

The remainder of the cast adds color, motion and harmony to the stage in various ways. There’s no doubt everybody is having a fun time, and that aspect to definitely contagious.

Jordan Paul’s set is well designed to accommodate the action, with nice attention to small details. Costumes by Ellijah are especially good, mixing color and texture with fine visual effects. Lighting by Robert Halfinger was a littfle rocky on opening night.

"Once in A Wifetime" certainly won’t challenge your imagination or your intellect. It’s frivolous and funny, dependent for its laughs on a fantasy twist to the charms of contemporary suburban life. The African American Theater Arts Troupe has the right idea in terms of exaggerated comedy, but the production needs some tightening up, and the cast needs some lessons in elocution. "Once in A Wifetime" will be presented at the Louden Nelson Center tomorrow and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. For ticket information, phone 459-3409.

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