Times are turbulent in May,1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. has just been assassinated and Robert Kennedy will meet that fate in June, 1968.
Mary (Tajionna Clinton), Buella (Janay Giles), Johnnie May (Karla C. Payne), Na (Angelique A. Strothers) and Martha (Cheryl Bates-White) are five black women who work in the kitchen of a “whites only” diner in Don Wilson Glenn’s “American Menu.”
Nationally the country is experiencing a great civil rights movement and is reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But the women are also concentrating on the happenings in their world and within their own families. A young black boy was murdered and dismembered in the neighborhood.
As they prepare food in the kitchen the women talk about their own personal situations.
Na is the unofficial boss/mom in the kitchen, although she does more talking and the occasional sleeping on the job than working.
Johnnie May constantly supports her husband, even though it’s known that he often strays from home.
Martha’s husband is in jail and she is her family’s sole support.
Mary dreams of going to nursing school and moving to California.
Since Beulla works mostly in the diner and not in the kitchen she’s often the target of gossip from the others. They are all curious about the mysterious weekend trips she takes to the annoyance of the others who want to know more.
Comedic retorts and the occasional 60’s music is interspersed to lighten the seriousness of the conversations.
Talks grow more serious as the everyday banter and concerns build. There is more talk about the boy killed earlier that morning. Discussions of their roles as comforters, responsible family supporters segue into an explosion of emotion, anger, sorrow and sometimes rage as they begin to verbalize their own personal goals and dreams.
Powerful performances from a well-balanced ensemble!
We feel Clinton’s paralyzing and obsessive fear as she deals with the boy’s murder in her neighborhood.
Giles effortlessly shows us the dichotomy of Buella’s world as the not fully trusted member of the group while attempting to play up to the diner’s white owner (only referenced but not seen).
Payne has a lot to say and says it well. She is assertive and opinionated but vulnerable.
Struthers provides comedic relief when needed but is the grown-up when tensions reach a high crescendo.
Bates-White nails Martha’s vulnerability, hopelessness and despair.
The set is wonderfully detailed and real food is prepared as the play progresses. Menu orders traverse across a squeaky rope pulley system between the main diner and the kitchen.
It’s hard to fathom how a “whites only” diner can refuse service to black patrons but employ five black women to cook and serve those white patrons. The irony and hypocrisy are stunning!
Although this is a fictionalized presentation, this kind of action was prevalent in the Jim Crow South and other states. There is still inequality today but compared to the 60’s, we have to believe that things have and will continue to improve.
“American Menu” can be presented anytime but it is especially significant to see it during Black History Month.
“American Menu” is a production of New Horizon Theater, Inc. and is performed at the Carnegie Library Auditorium in Homewood. It runs from February 3 – February 19. For more information, click here.