Center Stage lets the sun shine in with a vibrant and splendidly acted production of Let There Be Love, a 2008 tragicomedy by British West Indian playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah about aging, immigration and social change, directed by Jeremy B. Cohen.
Mr. Kwei-Armah made his American debut at the Baltimore theater in 2005 with the blazing Elmina’s Kitchen and Let There Be Love deals with many of the same issues — family, cultural disempowerment— only with sass and a bit of sentimentality instead of violence and banked anger.
Bitterness, however, flows richly throughout the play, especially in the main character of Alfred (Avery Brooks), an elderly and ill West Indian man aggrieved of, well, pretty much everything— his prickly, needy daughter Gemma (Pascale Armand), is a sour disappointment—but mostly he’s peeved by the fact that he’s going to die in East London, a place he migrated to in the late 1950s but never called home.
Think of a Caribbean version of Oscar the Grouch—with the foul mouth of a puppet from Avenue Q — and you have an idea of Alfred’s mien. Of course, there’s nothing stuffed or artificial about Mr. Brooks’ performance, beginning with the teasing musicality of his West Indian accent and the symphony of rude sounds that fly from his mouth when he’s dissatisfied. Mr. Brooks makes the tense dialogue sing, but he also makes lively conversation with his graceful fingers drumming impatiently on every available surface and the expressiveness of his face, which glowers commandingly but also glows when his beloved old phonograph plays Nat King Cole records.
The title of the play comes from one of Mr. Cole’s songs and the upbeat smoothness of the tune serves first as a curse, taunting the unhappiness of Alfred’s life, and then becomes a benediction in the second act as Alfred sheds some of his crust and we catch glimpses of the man who arrived in London in the Teddy Boy era full of hopes and determination.
Much of Alfred’s softening is the doing of Maria (Gretchen Hall), a young home healthcare worker and a new arrival from Poland. When she arrives in his lonely London house (Riccardo Hernandez’s set, rendered in sun-drenched island colors and patterns, is a sight for snow-weary eyes), Alfred has to confront his never-resolved foreigner status, as well as his prejudices against the subsequent waves of immigrants in his adopted country.
Maria’s winsomely oddball ways eventually penetrate some of Alfred’s layers of racism and resentment. Let’s just say race relations begin to thaw after a trip to Ikea, and what could have been sitcom mawkishness is a giddy moment of liberation in the hands of Mr. Brooks and Miss Hall. The character of Maria could have easily caused tooth decay, but Miss Hall approaches the role with such unaffected spirit you find yourself genuinely moved.
Let There Be Love touches on culture clashes, physical and verbal abuse, and family rifts, but the production faces these issues with such cheek and freshness you don’t take Mr. Kwei-Armah to task for the lack of profound insights into human nature. Instead, you commend him for this bittersweet, late-Valentine to living and dying on your own terms, and to the outsider inside all of us—that person eternally standing at the door, waiting to be welcomed home.
Let There Be Love
by Kwame Kwei-Armah
directed by Jeremy B. Cohen
produced by Center Stage