Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's recent review of Diary of a Wallflower
Set during the Great Depression in a neighborhood of Chicago that has been the victim of numerous bank robberies by Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, the plot focuses on five black women who are members of the Negro Women's Organization for Youth Education, a philanthropic organization that sells pies to raise funds to put young deserving Black women in their community through college. Their third member to graduate is Tracyada, the granddaughter of Stella, one of the group's founders, and the majority of the play takes place in the living room of Stella's home.
While the women believe that Tracyada is planning for a career as a school teacher, it turns out, due to an eye-opening encounter she had at school, she changed her major and has larger aspirations for the group: instead of just funding a few college scholarships by selling pies, she suggests the women rob a bank so they'll be able to send dozens of girls to get a higher education. She has come up with a fail-safe plan for the robbery to go off without a hitch and to have it assumed to be a robbery done by Dillinger or Nelson. While the women balk at Tracyada's idea, when a racist loan officer refuses to give the organization a loan to fund their scholarships, stating "colored folk don't need an education" and even laughs in Stella's face, the women have second thoughts.
The title of the play refers to the pre-Civil War hymn "Steal Away to Jesus" written by Wallace Willis that, like other songs of the time such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," were believed to have hidden coded information in their lyrics urging slaves to run away to obtain their freedom. King also incorporates some serious statements and ideas into the comic script that resonate, including how Black women were treated at that time, how the ladies should do something honorable with the money they steal, and how they need to do what they can to ensure the next generation doesn't have to start from scratch.
However, some of the statements come out of left field. Tracy tries to justify her scheme by saying it's time they collect on the "40 acres and a mule" promise made to freed slaves after the Civil War, which just seems an odd proclamation to make for women who are planning to rob a bank. Also, there really isn't much plot here beyond the initial idea for the bank robbery and the events that happen after they've decided to move forward with that plan. While King has created believable characters and her dialogue is fresh and fun and there a few unexpected twists and turns, it does take the entire first act to set the plot in motion, and since the majority of the laughs come in act two, the two acts seem somewhat off balance.
Fortunately, the Black Theatre Troupe cast, under Walter Belcher's warm direction, shine and shine brightly. They are all gifted comic actresses who know how to use their facial expressions, body language, and physical comedy skills to get big laughs. Welcher has also given his cast plenty of leeway to play up the idiosyncrasies of their characters and to be broad at appropriate times, which helps flesh out the thin script and derive big laughs from the many punch lines and comical situations.
Amanishakete Anacaona and Cherylandria Banks project a realistic, loving relationship as the idealistic Tracyada and her disapproving grandmother Stella. Cynnita Agent is a hoot as the no nonsense Blue, who never has her flask of alcohol far away. Shonda Royall is wonderful as the understanding voice of reason Sutty, and Lydia Corbin and Sylvia LaVonnté are hilarious, with excellent stage presence and sharp comic timing, as Red and Jade, respectively. All six women are skilled in creating believable and fully fleshed out characters.
Sarah Harris' scenic design delivers an impressive living room in a 1930s style Chicago home, with authentic period touches in the décor and props. Carol Simmons' costume, hair and make-up designs similarly project the fashions and hairstyles of the period. Stacey Walston's lighting and the sound design from Ben Cain shine, particularly in a well-constructed and sharply directed scene toward the end of act two that I won't reveal so as to not spoil the fun.
Steal Away may not be a perfect play but it is a sharp comedy that has some big laughs. Even though you know what these six women are doing is completely illegal, you still root to see them succeed which is a testament to Black Theatre Troupe's excellent cast who create a wonderful sense of empowerment, encouragement, and love as this tight sisterhood of 1930s African American women.
Steal Away runs through October 1, 2023, at The Black Theatre Troupe at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.blacktheatretroupe.org or call 602 258-8129.
Directed by Walter Belcher