Encore Michigan

Purple Rose Theatre premiere’s ‘Under Ceege’ for its re-opening

Review February 07, 2022 David Kiley

CHELSEA, Mich.–There has been much anticipation surrounding the re-opening of The Purple Rose Theatre, which has not produced a show since before the Covid-19 Pandemic. It is back in business this month with the world premiere of Under Ceege, by Michigan native Jeffrey Chastang.

The play is part of a commitment PRT has made to developing more work by minority playwrights. That commitment was made in 2020 after the discussion and debate over racism and racial equity was elevated worldwide following the monstrous killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer.

Ceege ( Jonathan West) is a black man in his late 40s, living with his Mother, “Lucky” (Angela G. King), in a rented. duplex home in Inkster, Michigan (the program says Inkster, while the press release says “a Detroit housing project). It is an uneasy relationship with Lucky who is such a technophobe she can’t manage the TV remote. And she is a diabetic with an unhealthy like of lemon-cream cookies that do not do her blood sugar any good. Ceege does not have a steady job, and he and Lucky play the lottery every day, scoring wins here and there that bolster their cash situation. The play takes place while the two discuss and prepare to go to Lucky’s father’s funeral.

The first act can leave one a bit confused because of Chastang’s use of terms to refer to family. Ceege’s recently deceased grandfather he refers to him as Pop and his late grandmother is referred to as Mama. Ceege’s own father died young as a soldier, presumably in Vietnam. He refers to his own Mother as “Lucky” rather than Mama. A few patrons discussed the confusion at Intermission, one asking, “Is she his mother or his big sister?” Clarity around this issue comes through in the second act, but it can leave audience members groping a bit until then.

Ceege is bossy, and constantly trying to handle Lucky–looking for the sugary snacks she has stashed around the house and taking them away, taking her blood sugar readings, replacing her favorite slippers, and generally reminding her in many ways that she is incapable of looking after herself in a modern world. Lucky, meanwhile, resists having her independence whittled away, and becomes especially irked when she learns that her late father and Ceege changed some of his financial situation to put Ceege in charge of remaining assets instead of Lucky. Ms. King deserves a shout-out for stepping into the role less a week before opening night, promoted from her understudy status. She covered for Sandra Love Aldridge.

Chastang has woven some story lines together into a narrative fabric seemingly meant to paint a picture of African-American life for too many working and semi-working families struggling to find prosperity. There is the reliance on playing the lottery instead of saving money. Ceege has fathered a son, but has little to do with his upbringing as the boy’s mother married another man that has been raising him. There is the fact that Lucky and her father before her has been paying rent on the Inkster duplex since the late 1940s, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on rent instead of buying the house that would have been paid off decades earlier.

The playwright doesn’t so much paint the family as 100% victims of racial inequity, but rather partners in it based on poor decisions and choices made over time by Lucky’s father, Lucky and now Ceege.

The set design by Sarah Pearline is a perfect reflection of modest, but tidy and proud home-making in Inkster, with kitchen, living room, hallway to bedrooms, etc. There are several instances of transition in the play where lights go down and we hear some transitional music (sound design by Tom Whalen) while we wait for the next scene. Pay attention and we hear music that ties in nicely to characters and theme, like “Stand By Me” and Sam Cooke’s “What A Wonderful World.”

This is the first time that PRT has produced a play by a black playwright, that is directed by a black director (Lynch R. Travis) and has an all-black cast. Besides being a frequent actor and director at PRT, Travis is also the theater’s “Chief Diversity Officer.” Because of pronouncements by theatre founder Jeff Daniels (who assumed to role of Artistic Director last week) and some public criticisms of the theatre by some black artists that they have not been treated equitably over the years at PRT, there are a lot of eyes on the theatre as it attempts to do better in the context of diversity and inclusion.

Under Ceege is not a perfect play, and it could certainly use further development to make it a stronger piece. But as is, it is a compelling look at a fragmented black family struggling to survive financially and emotionally in modern America that can be harsh on people who haven’t made all the right choices or given equitable opportunities. That is not a theme totally unique to black families. Still, it is refreshing to see a family story told through the lens of someone who is not a privileged white artist, and voiced through artists that bring greater diversity of expression to the PRT stage.

Suzanne Young – Costume designer; Noelle Stollmack – lighting design; Danna Seagrest – prop design.