Metropolitan Playhouse, the OBIE-winning NYC theater that stages 19th and 20th century plays in need of greater recognition, is currently presenting Abram Hill’s On Striver’s Row, running through June 19. Timothy Johnson directs and choreographs this immensely satisfying 1939 satire, the first full-length play produced by the American Negro Theater, which Hill co-founded with Frederick O’Neal in the wake of the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project. Alex Roe, Metropolitan Playhouse’s artistic director, opened contemporary audiences’ eyes to Hill’s work with last year’s revival of Walk Hard. In a world in which TV housewives seemingly have power to judge humanity, the story of upwardly-mobile snobbery among the elites of 1940s Harlem is refreshing, entertaining and relevant.
The Van Striven family are wealthy African Americans living in the upscale, two-block Harlem enclave that acquired the moniker Striver’s Row in the 1920s. As they prepare to celebrate the debut of 18-year-old Cobina (Al-nisa Petty) into society, it’s clear that Dolly (Kim Yancey-Moore), her mother, considers herself superior to most around her. This is emphasized by the maid, Sophie (DeAnna Supplee) — who speaks colloquially of shopping for dresses at “Lord and Numbers” — and by Chuck (Anthony T. Goss), the earnest young man from the neighborhood who helps out in the family’s 14-room brownstone.
But Dolly and her mother, Mrs. Pace (Marie Louise Guinier), talk mainly of the pedigree of their invited guests, especially including Ed Tucker (Adrian Baidoo), who they assume one day will marry Cobina. One of the play’s first scenes also features Professor Hennypest (Lawrence Winslow), a visiting zoology professor who thinks very generously of mankind, and Tillie Petunia (Lauren Marissa Smith), a local gossip columnist, each with different expectations for the party. Tillie, in particular, is poised to expose any déclassé happenings, and she urges the Professor to enjoy his conference at the Bronx Zoo with his “relatives.”
Just as Mrs. Pace finishes uninviting those on the guest list who might, say, enjoy pig’s feet or have kinky hair, Oscar Van Striven (Charles Antony Burks) assembles his family to advise them of one more special guest: Ruby Jackson (Linda Kuriloff). It appears that the family’s real estate fortune is about to get a boost through the sale of a property — a former garbage dump — to Ruby, a “common” cook who won a sweepstakes. As a condition to the transaction, Ruby wants to attend the party, experience Harlem society, and eventually develop her new property into a nice place to entertain elites. Dolly faints and Mrs. Pace is mortified, but Oscar reminds them that, should the sale not happen, their lifestyle of conspicuous consumption will force them to sell their mansion. Tillie is delighted. As all of this occurs, it seems that Cobina has been in love with the lowly Chuck for some time. Although she may need to sneak around with him at the party, that will be easier than to force a clandestine meeting in — gasp — Greenwich Village.
So the cream of Black society arrives at the party. As they do, each guest slowly reveals his or her own shortcomings. For example, Dr. Leon Davis (Roland Lane) was supported by his wife, Louise (Marlaina Powell), for years as he finished medical school; she can now see that she enabled Leon to become a better womanizer. Ed Tucker, although considered Cobina’s fiancé, is an effete, condescending child in a white dinner jacket. Chuck is soon discovered as Ed’s rival, but before anyone can say another nasty word, the young men realize they were in different branches of the same fraternity and perform a secret Snake Dance. Then Ruby arrives, her vibrant, unfiltered, lindy-hopping friends Beulah (Madelynn Poulson) and Joe Smothers (SJ Hannah) in tow. Joe wears a larger-than-life blue zoot suit, speaks only in cool-cat rhyme, and has eyes for uptight actress Lily Livingston (Christina D. Eskridge). Professor Hennypest decides to teach boy-man Ed that if he accepts and loves women for who they are, mutual understanding will follow.
This kind of talk wins the Professor points with Cobina and Lily, but it’s lost on Ed: Tillie is more his type. Oscar, Dolly and Mrs. Pace then finally confront Cobina and Chuck about their love affair. Chuck may not have “background,” but their question is more crucial: does he have “backbone”? Hill appears to be asking a second question to the audience: does it matter that every family tree has questionable branches? For despite the Van Striven family’s pride of place in African American society, we learn that the male line traces its fortune and fame to Dutch ancestors — one of whom was a corrupt preacher.
Then there still other questions hanging over this family. Will Tillie smear the family’s reputation? Will sweet, down-to-earth Ruby forgive the Van Strivens’ various affronts to her dignity and help out Oscar in his amoral real estate deal?
On Striver’s Row is obviously full of prejudiced parents and children out to change the world — or at least themselves. After all, the joys of worldly things like furs, riding lessons, fashionable feathers and a Barnard education may surround us, but so do signs of righteousness, such as Father Divine’s sermons, the power of forgiveness, the memory of working hard to get to where we are now. The language of the play has a beautiful rhythm nicely reinforced by joyful dance scenes. Collin Trevor Eastwood’s elegant set, with its many entrances, is perfect for a cast of 16 that must argue, negotiate and chase each other.
As choreographer and director, Johnson never slows the pace: when a denigrating remark escapes from someone’s lips, suddenly a slightly intoxicated grande dame stumbles in or there’s a boogie woogie and someone cuts a rug. It’s all well done, given that he must navigate his sprawling cast in and around the multiple rooms and floors of the Van Strivens’ Harlem mansion in Metropolitan Playhouse’s modest performance space.
More than 75 years after the play was written, Johnson now shows us the ridiculous moral positions of certain characters through the faces of other characters — and always with enjoyment on their faces. The biting repartee is timeless; there are also unforgettable lines that tell us what is happening off stage, like one character crawling on the floor “denture hunting.” Or another who demonstrates refinement by “not walking like a duck.” Or another who hints at displeasure by wearing “a look that hadn’t been washed in years.” In the Van Striven house, one bids one’s enemy farewell with “Adios, amoeba!”
Guinier, as ramrod-straight Mrs. Pace, makes the most of the play’s best put-downs. Both Guinier, and Moore’s Dolly can’t see that they’re acting against the interests of the Black community, not to mention missing all the fun, when they speak of the Sugar Hill area of Harlem as if it were Calcutta. “Snobbery may be a universal failing,” we’re told; Ruby is “a snob of humility.” But as the play unfolds, only the fear of becoming impoverished can bring the Van Strivens to speak civilly.
Nothing can get Smith’s adorably backstabbing Tillie to stop gossiping about those who have the status she desires for herself. Winslow’s Professor is delightful, though his presence reaffirms how difficult NYC can be for kindness to take root.
Perhaps the most sincere performance comes from Kuriloff’s Ruby. Here’s a woman who has just moved up in life — and not had time to forget it. She isn’t ashamed of who she is.
With Sidney Fortner’s costumes gorgeously recreating the postures and personalities of the ’40s, I’m now smitten with Hill’s work — and the efforts of this production to show us how we look at our best and our worst. It’s easy to see how On Striver’s Row launched the American Negro Theater. I’m glad that a new audience can enjoy the play’s surprisingly universal message.