All in the family

Cynthia West’s play Jar the Floor has been likened to an African-American take on TV’s The Golden Girls — a misconception local actor Janet Oliver is quick to correct.

“People don’t know how to characterize a play that’s all women,” she observes. “You’d be closer to compare it to [the stage version of] Steel Magnolias,” says Oliver about the jaunty foray into the misadventures of four generations of women from the same family.

Of course, West’s script does have the punchy one-liners that made The Golden Girls a hit, but forget about the canned laughter and the 30-minute, encapsulated happy ending — Jar the Floor (which, by the way, won the Beverly Hills NAACP’s Best Play award in 1995) eschews a fluffy plot to take a deeper look at the challenges each woman faces at her particular time of life.

A family affair

Set in suburban Chicago, Jar the Floor opens on the 90th birthday of MaDear, who lives in the home of her granddaughter, Maydee. As the cantankerous matriarch approaches her life’s end, she’s increasingly convinced that her dead husband is haunting the house. MaDear’s daughter, Lola, staves off middle-age insecurities by chasing men who never seem to amount to much.

Maydee, meanwhile, has chosen to forgo relationships in favor of pursuing her career as a college professor; as the play unfolds, she’s awaiting a tenure decision. Rounding out the family tree, Maydee’s college-age daughter, Vennie, arrives on the scene amid a cloud of marijuana smoke. In a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? twist, the young woman shows up with a white girlfriend in tow who has recently undergone a mastectomy and refuses to wear a prosthesis.

“Even though this is an African-American family, it’s every family,” insists Stephanie Hickling, who plays the rebellious Vennie. “Especially around the holidays, when families get together — and all the crap that goes along with that,” she adds.

If West’s play sounds chin-deep in issues, it is — but the actors promise that it doesn’t detract from the show. “Any family or group of people is dealing with layers of issues, things they bring to the table,” Oliver points out. “I thought [Jar the Floor] was chock-a-block full of stuff, and it is, but it’s written with so much humor that it’s not that heavy. A lot of the time, you’re laughing.”

She continues: “The humor is black humor [as in African-American, not dark comedy]. It’s family humor. It’s also universal. Every family has a Lola. Everyone has an ancient grandmother who’s off in her own world.”

“Even though each character has a story and an agenda, they’re all the same story,” adds Hickling.

On a mission

It’s the family theme — and not in the G-rated sense — that made Jar the Floor the choice for this year’s Asheville on Broadway event.

The organization began in 1999 as the brainchild of a small group headed by the late Greg Haller. “The reason Greg started AOB was because he saw there were holes in services for people living with AIDS,” recalls co-founder Lisa Morphew. “Some couldn’t get aspirin or blankets.”

AOB is a grassroots, volunteer-based organization with a two-part mission: using live theater to educate the community and boost HIV/AIDS awareness, and raising funds for organizations that assist those living with the disease.

Since AOB’s inception, the group has performed The Normal Heart, Quilt, The Laramie Project and Last Summer at Bluefish Cove. Each production has included a gala opening, complete with a silent auction of fine arts and crafts by local artists. All told, Asheville on Broadway has awarded nearly $50,000 to such groups as the Western North Carolina AIDS Project, the AIDS Consortium, Loving Food, the Nantahala AIDS Consortium, and ALPHA (based in Hickory, N.C.).

The thing is, this season’s theatrical offering isn’t about AIDS.

Of course, each performance will feature speakers and educators addressing HIV/AIDS issues, and the money raised will go directly to AIDS-related services. Beyond that, however, Morphew sees a pertinent link between the play and AOB’s purpose.

“My feeling is that any play that’s about love and bonding, and the troubles with that, is a good forum for speaking about AIDS,” she explains. “With HIV/AIDS now affecting a disproportionate number of people of color, young people and women, we are responding to the unfortunate failure of past educational programs to effectively address these populations in our community.”

For that reason, Haller had originally set his sights on Before it Hits Home, another Cheryl West play that deals with AIDS in the African-American community. But when AOB looked into getting the script, they learned it had been optioned by none other than Spike Lee.

Checking out West’s other works, Oliver discovered Jar the Floor. “This play deals with the universality of disease,” she maintains. “I don’t think Greg meant for AOB to deal only with AIDS. Of course, he’s not here for me to ask him; I know he looked for good scripts.”

Hickling agrees. “AIDS is a sickness, and people have different ways of dealing with that,” she observes. “In this play, breast cancer is there. AOB wants to point out that AIDS is a sickness, just like anything else.”

And Oliver argues, “The play [Haller] wanted to do dealt with the African-American community and AIDS, but even more, it was about families.”

In a way, the production itself is a family affair of sorts. After Oliver discovered the script, she called together a group of women actors she knew from the AOB’s production of Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (including Hickling and DiAnna Ritola-Schow), and found her friends ready and willing to jump on board. Oliver plays Maydee, and Ritola-Schow plays Raisa, Vennie’s girlfriend. The show also includes veteran actors Becky Stone (as MaDear) and Angela Jones (as Lola).

“A play that’s all women — you don’t usually see that,” muses Oliver. “This play gives the option for four black women on the stage at the same time. That’s rare.”

Morphew adds, “We have so many wonderful African-American actors in our community, and so few parts.”

Home for the holidays

While the play is the major draw, there’s more to the AOB production than what happens on-stage. In the past, the opening gala and silent auction have been a major part of the fund-raising, giving local art enthusiasts a chance to bid on unique creations. This year, however, change is afoot.

“We’re doing the auction differently,” Morphew reveals. “It will run longer — for all three nights — with about 10 pieces available for auction each night, so that each audience gets a chance to bid.” (In the past, the silent auction has been a blowout event that coincided with the lavish gala opening.) “We decided to keep our ticket prices lower, and there will be a smaller, less expensive opening,” Morphew continues. “We didn’t hire a band, for example. Saving money will allow us to give that money back to the community, to the agencies.”

Each year, dedicated artists and crafters donate works to the event, a selfless act that Morphew deems particularly praiseworthy. “I want to say a deep thank-you to the artists,” she emphasizes. “I’d ask people to come out and support the arts — both the theater and the visual works.”

This year’s offerings represent an impressive array of talent. Nancy Flemming of the Ariel Gallery fashions jewelry; internationally known glass artist Tom Krieger used to teach at the Penland School of Crafts; and works by Rock Creek Pottery have been exhibited at the Smithsonian. There are also mixed-media works by Jim Anderson, pottery by Maud and Austin Boleman, and donations from Bellagio and New Morning Gallery.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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