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Blue Notes 

Colorful family members veer from the harmonic path in ATC's 'Blue.'

African Americans are writing some of today's best plays about family, and Charles Randolph-Wright's Blue is nudging its way into that company. This comedy about a family of black morticians may go for the occasional cheap laugh, and one or two characters may seem too broadly drawn, but the work is not as shallow as it initially appears. Certain lines and gestures in the first act that come off as simple gags prove, in retrospect, to add serious depth and texture to a story being told very well by Arizona Theatre Company.

Blue, directed here by Sheldon Epps, has everything to do with household dynamics and almost nothing to do with race. An eccentric, domineering mother constantly skirmishes with her disapproving mother-in-law and two sons who feebly resist her notions of dignity and destiny, while her gentle, beleaguered husband makes feeble efforts to maintain peace. Take out the references to Ebony and afros, and you've got the standard set-up for innumerable white TV shows and light plays.

But a script can reflect a certain part of the African-American experience without delving into the civil rights struggle or hip-hop culture; it happens that a fair number of black families since 1964 have led lives indistinguishable from those of their middle- and upper-middle-class white neighbors.

The Clarks of Kent, S.C., are one such family. The funeral-parlor business has been very good to them, and a generous credit-card limit helps Peggy Clark cope with the fact that she gave up a chic model's life in Chicago to marry into a dynasty of country embalmers. We meet her in the late 1970s, buying furs and plying her family with exotic catered meals that she pretends to have cooked herself.

Constantly at odds with her haughty mother-in-law, Tillie, and struggling to shield her sons and, by extension, the entire family from such malignant forces as low-class girlfriends and trendy haircuts, Peggy nourishes herself with the albums of Blue Williams. The famous singer is such a strong presence in Peggy's mind that he seems to glide physically from room to room, serenading the Clark family in person until some fed-up family member shuts off the stereo.

We encounter the family again in the 1990s and find that the younger of the two Clark sons, Rueben, is pretty much estranged from his mother and dismayed that his once-rebellious brother, Samuel III, has failed to escape the family's insular world.

Midway through the second act, the revelation of a family secret ignites the obligatory crisis. It turns out that the secret has more to do with bad timing than bad character, though, so even at this point it's hard for the audience to dislike anybody on stage. Perhaps Randolph-Wright's softness toward his characters can be read as a theatrical flaw, but in real life, as here, we're surrounded not by villains but by people who make mistakes and muddle through.

ATC's production of Blue benefits from the star power of Leslie Uggams as Peggy. At first, Uggams' performance seems a bit broad, but Peggy is a flamboyant creature and Uggams proves to understand her character's possibilities and limitations perfectly. Equally well judged is Amentha Dymally's portrayal of Tillie, the mother-in-law. This plainspoken, sharp-tongued matriarch is one of the production's great delights.

Willie C. Carpenter plays the father, Samuel Jr., with a fatigued dignity; what could be a standard henpecked husband turns out to be a man of backbone and noble character, and Carpenter makes you sense that almost from the start. Chris Butler is an amusing and sympathetic Samuel III, although Butler's Shakespearean experience comes through a little incongruously when his character makes a speech at a public gathering. Jacques C. Smith plays the adult Rueben with the requisite rueful exasperation; Jovun Fox is the child Rueben, and the two sometimes appear on stage together, one as the other's conscience.

Felicia Wilson is particularly lively as the shrill, unsophisticated LaTonya, Samuel III's sometime girlfriend, who matures into someone calmer and wiser. And Dennis Rowland is charismatic and authoritative in the singing role of Blue Williams. Blue's fragmentary songs are by Nona Hendryx, whose main contribution to the decline of Western civilization came in 1974 when, as a member of Labelle, she recorded the funky "Lady Marmalade" ("Voulez-vous Coucher avec Moi"). Hendryx's original material is rather faceless in the first act, but becomes much more interesting as it both scales down and grows more exotic later in the play.

You'd think a family like this would quickly self-destruct, but Randolph-Wright's point is that in dealing with its tensions and disappointments the family has become unusually strong. It's surely no accident that the playwright evokes Superman's alter ego in creating the Clarks of Kent, a family that looks ordinary and awkward but underneath is strong as steel.

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