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A CurtainUp Review
St. Lucy's Eyes

Editor's Update, July 10, 2001: The success of St. Lucy's Eyes during its previous limited run has prompted an 8-week return engagement at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, (3 blocks below Christopher St., off 7th Av South) 239-6200. This run is from 7/12/01 through 9/01/01. Performance Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8PM (except Opening Night, July 12th at 7PM), Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3PM. Tickets: $55. $20/Student Rush, day of performance at BO only with valid ID. Our original review appears below.
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I want you to do better than me. Better than what your Mama did. I wanted that for all of you. All my girls. I pray one of you do somethin'
---Old Woman, to one of the girls who have come to her over the years for abortions.

Willis Burks II & Ruby Dee (Photo: Martha Holmes )

Bridgette A. Wimberly's Saint Lucy's Eyes is a small gem of a play. It has a central character with a story that is absorbing in its own right and at the same time fits into a larger canvas of world events and the theme of judgment and self-judgment. What makes this gem shine with particular brightness is its star, Ruby Dee -- older and rounder than you may remember her, but in top form and with the same unmistakably smoky voice.

The woman, known only as Old Woman, around whom the arc of the plot turns is a complex character, a woman whose head has not been bowed by a lifetime of poverty. To support her dream of leaving the Memphis tenement flat, where she lives with her husband Bay (Willis Burks II, displaying the same acting bravura as in August Wilson's award-winning Jitney), she performs abortions which are still illegal in 1968, the year when the first act unfolds. The money she's squirreled away in a glass jar kept under the bed is important; but as importantly, the abortions she performs on the young women in trouble are also her means for realizing the larger dream of helping them to become more than she or their mothers could be. Thus while she makes sure that she is paid her fee upfront, she imparts a lot of good-humored but sound one-generation-to-the-next wisdom along with those abortions. It's not for nothing that she tells her clients to call her "Grandma."

Dee takes full advantages of the wonderful role Ms. Wimberly has written her. She captures all its complexities -- the yearning for a better life, the nervous awareness of the possibility of trouble with the law, the desire to appease the disapproving husband she loves. It adds up to a shrewd, tough "entrepreneur" who also happens to be a wellspring of reassuring kindness and asense of mission.

The play takes its title from the statue of Saint Lucy with a pair of eyes lying on her plate -- eyes which the playwright as a girl found judging but later forgiving. The drama's four forceful scenes effectively move the story from 1968, when Martin Luther King was killed within earshot of the Old Woman's home -- to 1980 when she feels free to cast her first vote. The strong writing gives Ms. Dee as well as the three supporting players every opportunity to reveal themselves fully within the framework of an important period of American history.

Toks Olagundoye & Ruby Dee
(Photo: Martha Holmes)
Scene one brings the first of the play's two "clients" to the abortionist's apartment. Like the Old Woman she is identified only as Young Woman. As portrayed by Toks Olagundoye, she is every terror-stricken young innocent caught in a frightening situation. The pounding rain outside accentuates the dark shadow pregnancy has cast over the girl's future. That rain also serves as a metaphor for the hope of a sunnier future, with the declaration "It ain't going to rain no more" passed on as a sort of mantra by the old and to the young woman.

Scene two, same scene but a day later, dramatizes the relationship of the Old Woman the hard working and loving husband she calls her "Old Man" but who unlike the female character has a name, Bay (his having a name makes the generic naming of the female characters seems unnecessarily abstract). The illegal abortions have created turmoil in the relationship, that's exacerbated by the fact that Bay, a sanitation worker is out on strike. The loss of Bay's paycheck has prompted Old Woman to renege on her promise to stop doing the abortions. The labor battle he's part of has also brought Martin Luther King to town and it is King's assassination that brings this 1968 segment of the play to a volatile climax.

For the second act the play fast forwards to 1980 and another and far less naive girl seeking the Old Woman's help in ending a pregnancy. Unlike the first young woman, this one is fiercely belligerent and full of false aspirations (Sally A Stewart). The setting this time is the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot and the meeting ends more acrimoniously than that with the first pregnant girl.

The final scene brings the story full circle. While the setting -- a prison interview room -- and characters completing the arc are inevitable, it escapes being contrived. The conclusion, like the entire play, is honest and moving.

Saint Lucy's Eyes is one of four plays about the African-American experience staged in New York this season. All depict different viewpoints and periods. All are plays to which attention should be paid:

  • August Wilson's King Hedley II set in 1985 on Broadway (to be reviewed after its official opening, a day)
  • Michael Develle Winn's Up Against the Wind drama, about the rapper Tupac Shakur staged at New York Theatre Workshop takes place during the1990
  • Rubin Santiago-Hudson's autobiographical Lackawanna Blues (to be reviewed after its official opening) takes place mostly around 1956.
Ms. Wimberly's warm-hearted and absorbing drama stands tall among these offerings. It deserves a run beyond the current one to be seen by as many theatergoers as possible, those who identify themselves with hyphens as well as those without.

by Bridgette A. Wimberly
Directed by Billie Allen
Starring Ruby Dee; with Willis Burks II, Toks Olagundoye and Sally A. Stewart.
Set Design: Beowulf Borritt
Lighting Design: Jane Reisman
Costume Design: Alvin B. Perry
Original Music and Sound Design: Michael Wimberly
Running Time: 2 hours, including one intermission
Women's Project Theatre, 424, W. 55th St. (9/10Ave) (212) 239-6200
4/28/01-4/29/01; opening 4/12/01
Performance Schedule: Tuesday thru Saturday evenings at 8PM, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3PM-- $36
- $10/High School Rush, $15/College & Senior Rush, day of performance at BO only.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 4/10 performance

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