Jacqui Parker plays the lead in her own drama, "Get Rid of The Roaches...a love story", making its debut in a beautifully realized workshop production as part of the Women on Top Festival produced by Underground Railway and Centastage at the Boston Center for the Arts. Enthusiastic audiences have packed the small Black Box theatre to laugh and cheer the talented actors who are bringing Parker's drama to life. The author plays Teda,. the lead singer of "The Quintessence", a soul trio that has been building its reputation through a decade of touring and is back in Boston expecting their new CD to put them solidly in the upper echelons of their profession. However, all is not as it should be. The group is in danger of falling apart. Teda is married to her manager, Lynold (Ricardo Engerman), and he has built her a beautiful new house in an prosperous suburb "up the hill" from her old Roxbury neighborhood, where she and her homegirls got their start at the Sunshine Room. The trio is playing the Sunshine Room one more time, at reduced rates, in honor of their motherly mentor Mamie (Juanita Rodriguez), who is about to retire from running her dead husband James' jazz club, and from a music business that has lost the down home nurturing qualities Mamie most prized. Lynold isn't happy with the gig, or with the old ways, but he is willing to bend some to keep Teda happy and get the talent's signatures on the lucrative new contract.
The make up of the singing trio is a bit schematic: Teda is the center of it, and is a middle of the road Everywoman whose sense of what's the right thing to do is pitched to win audience empathy and approval. Sadie (Trecia Reavis, the composer of the show's Quintessence songs not written by Parker herself) is an improbably child-like idealist, untouched by the harsh conditions of a singer's life on the road; determined to stay chaste until marriage and sighing romantically over the fan letters left anonymously on her window sill, each accompanied by a single red rose. Gina (Tiffany Mayes), is the other extreme-- a low down promiscuous man-trap who plots to replace Teda as the Quintessence's lead singer, and as Lynold's wife. Gina and Lynold are the vermin Mamie refers to in the advice that serves as the play's title: "Get Rid of The Roaches".
Jacqui Parker is a dynamite actress who has bowled Boston over with
a series of knock-out performances ranging from hundred year old Dr. Bessie
in "Having Our Say" at New Rep to the eponymous "Old Settler" at the Lyric
to a spaced out teen runaway to a tough as nails prisoner doing hard time
for the murder of her little girl. Parker gives what could be a paper
doll part all the shading of a rich and complex character. Her supporting
cast has talent to burn, too. In addition to the quartet of musical
ladies, Balele Shoka is Charlie, known as "Blow Boy"-- Maime's baby
brother, a saxophone player who turned his life over to Jesus after Maime's
husband James and two of his musician friends were gunned down one night
outside the Sunshine Room. Charlie has been carrying the torch for Teda
for years, but he thinks of her as his angel, his muse, and is more disturbed
than delighted when the married Teda shows signs of finding him physically
attractive. Lonnie Farmer plays Sammy Sloan, better
known as "Bottle Man", who wanders through the first half wearing scruffy
clothes and pushing a shopping cart full of empties, and in the second
half puts on a three piece suit that goes better with his always exquisite
manners. It's not a shock, except to the imperceptive Sadie. Farmer's
Bottle Man always carried quiet signs of inner depths.
Parker's play offers plenty of girl talk, and dishing and dis'in, and squabbles and fights and kindness and grief and betrayals and reconciliation, plus five songs sung by the group or soloists. All of this is astonishingly well done, far above what could reasonably be expected from a production mounted for a five performance run in a Black Box at a new works festival. The production displays the stage craft of a top rank set of craft masters: Scenic Design by Paul Theriault, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, Costume Design by Bob Pagliarulo, Sound Design by Rick Brenner. At the very least "Get Rid of The Roaches" should settle into a local theatre where everybody who'd catch the local references could get a chance to enjoy it. Accompanied by Deryl Williams, the music is polished, the acting slick and/or gutsy as canny director Maureen Shea modulates the action and shapes the twists of plot. There was one moment that set me back on my heels, though. When the improbably pugilistic Sadie hauls off and cold cocks Lynold, I understand why the audience laughs and sort of cheers-- I did, too. But a similar outburst greets Lynold's attack on Teda: her husband punched her, and most of the audience laughed. Up till then, and after, I thought we were all on Teda's side-- although as a man whose woman is his meal ticket and won't sleep with him any more, Lynold does merit at some sympathy. But to laugh when he slugs her?? At the end each lover gets the partner he deserves, and the women get the kind of love they long for-- including, it's strongly implied, a reunion of Mamie and her beloved husband James in heaven above. I have only one major suggestion: I think "Get Rid of The Roaches" should get rid of the title, and maybe tone down the attitude behind it a little, too. Gina and and Lynold ought to shape up and do right, sure. But calling them cockroaches is neither Christian nor classy.