Blue tells the story of a wealthy African-American family in Kent, S.C. The success of the Clark’s family funeral home affords the clan an exalted position amongst the community, a fact that Peggy Clark (Crystin Gilmore) carries with pride and reminds the family of at all opportunities. Husband Samuel (Gabriel Wright) runs the business and keeps his head down. Sons Reuben and Sam (William Deion Smith and Kevin Thorn, respectively) fight with or for their mother, depending on the situation, while grandmother Tillie (Teresa Smith) throws jabs at her arrogant daughter-in-law. Beatrice Alice Heyward plays Latonya, a local girl who dates the teenage Sam.
Blue stands as another visual triumph for Charleston Stage. The production values here are solid. Marybeth Clark directs a tight show from the loose script by Charles Randolph-Wright (music and lyrics by Nona Hendryx). Only the dinner scene suffers from awkward blocking; the location of the table and the seating of the actors leave most faces hidden. Julian Wiles’ set design is stunning with a soothing color scheme. It’s all visually pleasing and the production’s strongest asset.
The opening moments introduce an older version of youngest son Reuben (the adult version is played by Lee Hollis Bussie). This version of Reuben walks around observing the family and the story, commenting to the audience and repeating his younger self’s lines throughout. It isn’t until half an hour into the play, when the two Reubens speak to each other, that anyone asks the question I was wondering from the beginning: “Why are you here?” Whether Reuben is a ghost, flashback, or flash forward is never established in the play, but the two Reubens interact and influence each other in a way that becomes downright unsettling. It is as if young Reuben is suffering from hallucinations. The fact that these positions shift in act 2, making young Reuben the spectator, just serves to confuse the narrator portion of the play.
The final character of the play, and its namesake, is Blue Williams, a soul singer played by Ira Lindberg Harris. The character is the center of obsession for both Peggy and Latonya, and an integral part of the plot (don’t worry about spoilers, if you don’t see it coming you aren’t paying attention). The character also only sings throughout the course of the play, crooning an assorted collection of jazz and blues. Unfortunately, he lacked the vocal prowess and finesse that his character is lauded for in each and every mention of Blue as a singer.
The script is amiable and good for a few laughs, many provided by Teresa Smith’s grandmother, whose jabs at her daughter-in-law are well played and often hilarious. Gilmore excels at Peggy’s arrogance and wears her classism well. Gabe Wright hits all his notes as the father working to keep his family together. Young William Smith keeps up well with his older co-stars. All the awkwardness in the characters is a fault of the playwright, not the performances.
While Blue suffers from a poor script and a few weak performances, the show’s heart is in the right place. It’s something completely different in the long line of African-American theater: an upper-middle-class family whose woes have nothing to do with their racial struggle and everything to do with their personal issues. One does not come across too many of those.