"Five on the Black Hand Side" is being given an exuberantly joyful production at the Rep, Inc. Charlie Russell's comedy is one of the funniest of the black family plays that emerged in the late '60s.
But the warmth and good feelings generated by the play are not justified by all the bickering and bad feelings that are strewn throughout the plot. "Five on the Black Hand Side" is a sloppy script that doesn't bother to make sense on its own terms. It provides some juicy acting opportunities within individual scense, however, and The Rep takes skillful advantage of them.
The Brooks family of Harlem is coming apart. The issues are not the ones that occupy so many other black family plays of the period -- drugs, alcohol, welfare, absent fathers, domineering mothers, whatever. Mr. Brooks is a barber, meticulous and disciplined to a fault. Mrs. Brooks is a lamb who closely follows her husband's instructions on what to do with her days. The three children appear to be prospering, though they're frequently found at each other's throats.
But Mrs. Brooks is unhappy with her servitude. Goaded by some lively friends, she rebels. Assisted by her son the college rebel, she occupies the rooftop with military paraphernalia until Mr. Brooks agrees to a list of demands.
In the course of her rebellion and in the disagreements between her two sons, intriguing issues are raised. But none of them is resolved. At the end of the play, we skip from a scene of bitter conflict to a lively, lively wedding reception at which all of the problems have magically vanished. Mr. and Mrs. Brooks are never shown resolving their differences, and neither are their sons shown settling their separate squabble. By avoiding the final showdowns, Russell underrates the potency of his own work in the earlier part of the play.
This does not mean the play should be longer. It's too lightweight for its current length. Several supporting. players in the Brooks barber shop could be completely eliminated. The play would be a brighter, quicker, funnier piece of work.
There is no question that Russell can write comedy. The Rep cast, directed by Jaye Stewart, uncovers an impressive stock of laughs. The female plotters -- played by Deborah Chavis, Sadiga Pettaway and Caren Clark Taylor -- endow the rip-snorting scene in which their liberation movement begins with an irresistible sense of giddy possibilities. And Jamaal Huggins and Arthur Daily Jr. tear into their fraternal battle with such conviction that it's doubly disappointing that Russell doesn't allow us to see more of them.
The play definitely is moer at home at the Rep than it was on movie screens a few years ago. The movie moved the action to Los Angeles, where people do not camp out on their rooftops as they might in Harlem. The New York locale effectively embodied in Motojicho's design at the Rep makes a lot more sense.