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[whitespace] Sticking Together

No one's too old for a little larceny in Tabia's 'Steal Away'

By Heather Zimmerman

GIRL POWER is hardly a new phenomenon, as Ramona King's comedy Steal Away proves and Tabia African-American Theatre Ensemble's current production demonstrates. In Chicago during the early 1930s, the ladies of the NWOYE (Negro Women's Organization for Youth Education) have sent several young women from their church to college, financing the girls' tuition with bake sales. Their efforts have been a success, but now, the Depression threatens the organization.

As this crisis worsens, the NWOYE welcomes home its most recent graduate, Tracy (Sonya Stamper), who the ladies hope--and expect--will teach at a neighborhood school. However, college has not just educated Tracy academically. Inspired by a research subject who reclaimed land stolen from him by white men, she's spent the last two years formulating a plan to keep the NWOYE financially sound for good: a bank heist. Of course, the ladies will have none of it, until the local bank turns them down for a loan, the loan officer nastily contending that "Negro children don't need an education."

Tracy's plan relies on the absurdity of church ladies, most of them elderly, robbing a bank--no one would ever suspect them, she rightly maintains. Likewise, King uses the fish-out-of-water premise as the source for much of the play's comedy. Director Buddy Butler mines these moments for the play's best laughs, making a true comic spectacle out of scenes of the ladies perusing bank floor plans and hefting Tommy guns. The actors play such scenes with obvious relish, but all the while maintaining the dignity of these iron butterflies. In a sense, these ladies are all out of their element in a world that generally expects them to just turn the other cheek--none of them is a quitter. Jean Hawkins gives a particularly strong performance as the deceptively frail Stella, Tracy's grandmother and the matriarch of the group. Adaku Davis brings tenderness and depth to the timid and shy, but not-so-retiring Jade.

Although Steal Away is most definitely a character-driven piece, at times the production loses momentum when it digresses from the central plot to explore the backstories--or fantasy backstories--of some of its characters. For instance, a play-acted, High Noon-style "showdown" between Renita (Gayle Hedwig Rucker) and Beulah (Sharon Moore) makes hilarious use of the pseudo-antagonistic energy between these two characters, but Butler lets the play's generally high-speed, slapstick pace flag in a scene that needs tight comic timing.

When it comes to the actual heist, it's a series of Keystone Cops moments for these novice criminals. At times, we get to see the actors' talents for physical comedy. Armed with flashlights, guns and all the tools of true burglars, the ensemble shows us a bunch of real bunglers.

No matter how amateurish their attempts at robbery, however, the ladies' efforts sum up a major theme of Steal Away: the importance of sticking together in the face of adversity, a subject on which Tracy lectures the ladies often, but which it's clear they already understand well. Although the robbery plan is initially divisive among the ranks of the NWOYE, the ladies come together on it simply for the good of the community--the guiding purpose of their organization in the first place. King celebrates the community spirit of such women, demonstrating, albeit hyperbolically, the power of women united.

Steal Away plays Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Road, San Jose. Tickets are $20 general/$50 for Saturday's gala reception. (800.MHC.VIVA)

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From the March 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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