“Sassy Mamas”: Generational and gender role reversals

Sassy Mamas, by NAACP Image Award-winning playwright Celeste Bedford Walker, is a comedy-drama about three longtime girlfriends in Washington, D.C., who, in the autumns of their lives, find themselves flying solo. Hospital administrator Jo Billie (the indomitable Iona Morris, who also helmed this remount) is recently widowed, while Mary’s (Elayn J. Taylor) ambassador husband has broken diplomatic relations with her by throwing Mary to the curb in favor of a younger woman. The never married, career-driven National Security Adviser Wilhelmina (not Condoleezza), played by Honolulu-born actress Denise Dowse, has been too busy pursuing international relations to have a personal relationship. What’s a single woman to do?

Prodded by Jo Billie, who appears to be the sassiest of the gal pals, they ponder why it’s socially acceptable for a male to have a much younger female mate, and they decide to “flip the script.” So, using the advantages of their social status, wealth and position, the upper crust trio seek younger sex partners. In the first act it seems as if Sassy will be a raucous, raunchy farce about “cougars” – or, in this case, “black panthers” – and their, shall we say, young “bucks.” But over the course of almost three hours, Walker’s two-acter reveals that there’s much more to her characters and plot than just the older woman-younger man paradigm.

Complications and hilarity ensue, along with some drama and pathos. Jo Billie, portrayed by the youngest and sexiest of the three actresses, acquires a boy toy with whom the businesswoman signs a contract for his sexual services (paging Ms. E. L. James!). LaDonte (Jah Shams) and Jo Billie have an especially high-larious scene involving some hanky-spanky role playing, with the impish Morris wearing a sort of “I Dream of Jeannie” costume. This sidesplitting sequence is worth the price of admission alone, in a play that has much more to offer as well.

Veering from the comic to the dramatic, Shams does a good job revealing that this “stud,” who is about half Jo Billie’s age, arrives on the scene with a back story and baggage of his own. Jo Billie discovers that playing a conventional male role (which may be why the dramatist gave this character a sort-of man’s name) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The play also follows Wilhelmina and Mary, who – acting under the influence (of Jo Billie, that is, although lots of wine, etc., is guzzled during the course of the action) – become involved and enraptured with their own younger beaus, ex-pro athlete Wesley (portrayed by Derek Shaun, who has a Bill Duke type vibe) and gardener Colby (Kareem Grimes).

The Sassy character who evolves the most is Mary, and this is insightfully expressed through, of all things, her hair. At first, the ambassador’s wife has straightened hair but by the end of Act II Mary is sporting dreads (which Ms. Taylor told this reviewer is actually her own natural hair). Not only does this symbolize the straitlaced Mary sexually loosening up and becoming, quite literally, kinkier, but it signifies her returning, again literally, to her African roots.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X (assassinated 50 years ago this month) wrote about the painful process of “conking” hair: “This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are ‘inferior’ – and white people ‘superior’ – that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look ‘pretty’ by white standards.” Kudos to Taylor and makeup and hair designer Gayla Belay for cleverly expressing character through follicles.

Sassy‘s set, designed by Jeff Murray, is also clever as it embodies three separate apartments under one roof, each with its own ambiance. The ensemble and action are skillfully directed by co-star Morris, a force of nature who of course is show biz royalty (her Dad Greg co-starred in the 1960s Mission Impossible TV series). All of the actresses are veterans with credits stretching longer than a giraffe’s neck. Walker’s lengthy script works OK as is, but a skillful editor could probably cut it by an hour, which would make it more accessible to theatergoers.

Indeed, Sassy Mamas could be adapted with the same cast for television, perhaps as a sitcom or even as an hour-long weekly comedy-drama; perhaps they could call it “How to Get Away with Mamas?” In any case, this production seems to be more about generational and gender issues than ethnicity, and probes some eyebrow-raising topics – with lots of laughs and a few tears along the way.

Sassy Mamas plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and on Sundays at 2:00 pm through March 29 at Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles 90019. For info: (323) 571-3232; www.facebook.com/sassymamasplay. For tickets: http://sassymamas.brownpapertickets.com/.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in cinema at New York's Hunter College. After graduating, he lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement for "20/20," Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek, etc. He went on to co-write "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and AlterNet.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies." Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States." He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle and one of L.A.'s most prolific film/theatre/opera reviewers.

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