Sunday, August 19, 2012

Elmina’s Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah

Terrell Tilford and Tracey A. Leigh - Photo Ed Kreiger

By Joe Straw

“Bad luck is always just around the corner.” - Deli

From the opening moments of this play, I found myself emotionally caught up in the lives of these exceptional characters.  They are British blacks, of West Indian background, with hopeful dreams but stuck with no way out.

It is, in fact, one of the finest emotional experiences I have had in a long time. The breathtaking dialogue of Kwame Kwei-Armah and the acting from some of the finest actors working in Hollywood today will take you out of your seat and place you right in the middle of their ill-fated concatenate lives. This is a theatrical experience you should not miss.

Also, the start of the second act is heartbreaking.  So, if you like the ride of an emotional roller coaster, this production is for you.

The Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble presents Elmina’s Kitchen written by Kwame Kwei-Armah and directed by Gregg T. Daniel.  This marvelous production is running through September 9th, 2012 and is wonderfully produced by Racquel Lehrman of Theatre Planners at The Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles 90036.

“The name Elmina itself is a reference to the infamous Elmina Castle in Ghana, where slaves were bought and sold in the 17th century.” – Dylan Southard (Dramaturg)

The play begins with a mysterious man, in costume, holding a gurkel (a one-string African guitar famed for possessing the power to draw out spirits) in his hand. He spreads a powder onto various places of Elmina’s kitchen and suddenly disappears.

Moments later, the lights open revealing Elmina’s Kitchen, a “one-notch-above-tacky” West Indian restaurant in “Murder Mile” Hackney.  (Hackney is a deprived borough of London noted for being low rent and very creative.)

Digger (Noel Arthur), a putative thug of questionable integrity and daily patron, is reading a British tabloid and making comments not appropriate in Elmina’s dinning room.

Deli (Terrell Tilford), sitting at the counter, turns around and gives us a glimpse of his battered and bruised head.  Still sore, he wants none of this bad language in his fine establishment.   

Digger wants none of his chastisement.

“…why I don’t boo you down and tek my business dere.  Gemme fritter and a Ginness punch.” – Digger

“Please.” – Deli

“What’s wrong wid you today?” – Digger

“Cos I ask you to say please something must be wrong with me?  See my point? You’re ignorant.” – Deli  

After being served, Deli asks for money and there is a slight disagreement.  Digger claims he doesn’t have it.  Deli calls him a low-life.  

“See me and you, we go fall out one-day, you know! I not no low nothin’.” - Digger

Not a good ideal to call “a legitimate businessman” a low-life when that person carries around a gun in his waist and a tech nine in his bag.  And suddenly, Digger pulls out the tech nine and flaunts it as though it were an extension of his lower appendage.

Deli tells him to put it away and answers the phone to take an order.

After the phone call, Digger has some words of advice on how to improve this fine eating establishment starting with the nasty fritter he tried to eat.  Suddenly he gets a call from “rude bwoy,” a sub-contractor from his legitimate business of thuggery.  

Digger operates his business out of a table at Elmina’s Kitchen and Deli lets him stay there because he serves as protection and because he wants to keep up with the sorted lives of the people living in his community. 

Deli and Digger have an interesting relationship. Their verbal exchanges are not a phatic interaction. Mostly they exchange business information. For example, Deli is very intrigued with Spikey’s hair salon across the street that went from one station to 12 in very little time.  Digger implies that Spikey was dealing. 

Digger tells Deli that Spikey was way over his head and that he wanted repayment of his twenty thousand.  He approached Spikey, put a gun to his head, and astonishingly, the man offered his fifteen-year-old daughter as payment.  But Digger nixed that idea as he has his reputation to uphold.

“I told him I’d kill his family across the whole world.  He had my money in five days.” – Digger

Shortly thereafter, Ashley (Aaron Jennings), Deli’s son, comes in with a hoodie and his pants below his “arse”.  Deli frowns upon that sort of style when his son is delivering food. Also, Deli doesn’t like Ashley’s recent haircut, which looks like Zorro took a blade across his head.  Ashley comes back with a banner for Dougie (Deli’s brother) who is being released from prison soon.

But there is tension underneath, Ashley is angry that Roy roughed up his Dad.  And Digger is surprised that Deli, a former boxer, didn’t defend himself.  

When Deli leaves the room, Ashley asks Digger if he can join his ranks.  Digger says, no. Dejected, Ashley, pulls up his pants, takes the food, and makes a delivery.

Moments later, Baygee (Leon Morenzie), an older upscale street vendor and an old family friend, dances into the room after informing everyone that he won ten pounds on the lottery.  To celebrate, he orders a shot of rum.  In his arms, he carries bags of knock off clothing at reduced prices.  He wants little to do with Digger nor does he like Deli’s cooking. He leaves to deliver merchandise with plans to return later.

Shortly thereafter, Anastasia (Tracey A. Leigh) comes into the restaurant.  She looks around, hesitates for a moment, and then blurts out that she is looking for a job. Nevertheless she says the place is a mess and insults Deli’s mother Elmina and her name.   She offers a macaroni pie, a sample of her cooking, as reason to hire her.  

“Cos, girl, you got brass balls coming in here and tell me about my mudder!  People have died for less.” – Deli

Anastasia’s questionable characteristics and her motives for working at Elimina’s Kitchen are also under scrutiny. Digger thinks he’s seen her around the community running with a crack gang.

Suddenly Ashley comes in and reports that Roy is opening up a West Indian restaurant across the street, possibly financed by Digger. Deli is pissed but lets it slide.  In any case, he has forgotten to buy Dougie’s favorite food, plantains, and he rushes out to purchase them.  

While Deli is gone, Ashley tries to cozy up to Digger when he orders a Brandy.

“Na, man.  Dis one’s on da house.” – Ashley

“Did your father authorise you to give anyone anything on da house?” – Digger

“No, but you ain’t any old anyone.” – Digger

“Did your father authorise you to give anyone anything on da house?” – Digger

“No.” – Ashley

This doesn’t stop Ashley from trying to get something going with Digger but Digger knocks him down and tells him if he wants to be a bad man go back to school and learn. Anastasia sees Ashley on the floor and tries to help but Ashley tells her that if she tells anyone that she’s dead.

Deli comes back from shopping and with news that Dougie was killed in prison.

Clifton, their father, returns home to bury his son and the rest of the story becomes the tale of three generations coping with life in England.   (And this is a simplification as their lives are dramatically altered by the miscalculations of their actions in the second act.) 

Noel Arthur and Terrell Tillford - Photo Ed Kreiger

Noel Arthur as Digger gives an incredible performance. Digger is a multi-layered character who is tough, funny, and incredibly smart.  He is a man of moral principles.  He keeps a layer of respectability so that he can manage daily life in England. He is someone you don’t want to cross but he seems to respect the people who stand up to him. It is a character that actors die for and Arthur’s performance soars. This is probably one of the finest performances I’ve seen all year and a performance that no one should miss.   

Terrell Tilford is very mysterious as Deli and that mystery remains until the end of the play. Deli has no loadstar with the exception of the money that he hides in mysterious places. He doesn’t fight back.  He is weary of a woman coming into his life. He lets the problems in his life find him and not the other way around. And problems do find him and it ain’t pretty. So in the end when he does take the initiative, it backfires on him in the worst possible way. Tilford gave a terrific performance but I would love to see more of the boxer in him and would also like to see that part of his life that he carries with him from his time in prison. Still, this was an exceptional job.  

Basil Wallace and Leon Morenzie - Photo Ed Kreiger

Leon Morenzie as Bagee is a wonderful performer. He is a singer and dancer, a bon-vivant task master.   As the character, his work is the way they use to do it in England.  He is a salesman that carries the merchandise wherever he goes. To him, it is an honest living and that living keeps him on the straight and narrow path, aside from the drinking part, and the womanizing, and other things.  Morenzie understands the craft.  He is an actor with an amazing instrument and gives an extremely delightful performance.

Tracey A. Leigh as Anastasia has a wonderful presence and does all the right things to give an incredible performance. I whispered to my partner that she was after the money. “No, she loves him.”  Well, it was a little bit of one and a lot of the other.  As the character, Anastasia has skeletons in her closet and not completely void of trouble. This job may be the only thing she’s got going, aside from making delicious macaroni pie. She is going to make a go of it and get herself on the right path. Her truth lies well below her surface. At this point of her life she does not want to hurt anyone still she searches for the money.  This was a wonderful performance and mysterious in many ways.

Aaron Jennings plays Ashley looking for the easy way out and a nice crisp BMW. He even goes so far to recite incondite rap. He gets in way over his head doing all the wrong things.  Maybe going back to college is not such a bad idea after all. I needed a little more heart in the final scene to add to a very nice performance.

Basil Wallace plays Clifton the patriarch who comes back home to bury his son, Dougie.  Deli calls him “Clifton,” not Dad, and wants to hustle him out the door.  But Clifton has some explaining to do and he feels his son should understand the reasons why he left. Also he wants to make amends and get a little piece of the money that seems to be floating around. Try as he might, he is not successful so he takes another route to destroy things in his son’s life.

June Carryl and Willie C. Carpenter understudy Anastasia and Clifton respectively.

This is the second show I’ve seen in a few months directed by Gregg T. Daniel, Artistic Director of The Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble (See Cobb write-up).  His direction is marvelous and spot-on and the emotions of the night will carry you away to another land with ostentatious satisfaction.  The actors manage a number of accents with incredible dexterity; Jamaican, Grenada, English black and they were all well done. There is a motorcycle written into the play.  I saw the motorcycle near the restrooms (how they got it up to the second floor is another discussion) but didn’t see it during the performance. The Dougie character was not seen but should be strengthened to give us a grand presentation before his early demise.  Possibly the accents threw me in introducing other characters that we also do not see including Roy, Spikey, et al.

This is a wonderful play by Kwame Kwei-Armah, having its West Coast premiere in Los Angeles.  One can just sit back and enjoy the marvelous action and the wonderful characters on stage. The dialogue is so descriptive that it defies comparison.  It rings a special kind of truth to people who are just trying to survive the only way they know how.  This play will take you into the heart of “Murder Mile” Hackney and leave you breathless.

Other founding members of The Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble who are instrumental in bringing this production to Los Angeles are Veralyn Jones, Yvonne Huff and Jason Delane.

Gary Lee Reed, Scenic Designer, did a fabulous job and I especially liked the phone, which made a nice sound when hanging up.

Michael Gend did a great job as the Lighting Designer.

A. Jeffrey Schoenberg was the Costume Designer did a fabulous job.  It just worked.

David B. Marling was the Sound Designer.  A very important job for a lot of the things that are taken for granted.  His website is

Other members who made significant contributions to this production are:

Ameenah Kaplan – Choreographer
Edgar Landa – Fight Choreographer
Deborah Ross-Sullivan – Dialect Coach – Wow!  Was this a tough one?  Wonderful job!
Dylan Southard – Dramaturg
Victoria Watson – Production Stage Manager
Eileen Mack Knight – Casting Director – One of the finest jobs all year.  Simply wonderful!
Nora Feldman – Publicist – Job well done.
Karen Lascaris – Graphic Designer
Sydney A. Mason – LDTE Intern

Run!  And take someone who hasn't gotten their (post Olympic) fill of Jolly Old England.

Reservations: 323-960-4451

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