LAST SEEN HERE in the Pulitzer Prize- winning "A Soldier's Play," the estimable Negro Ensemble Company returns to Ford's Theater with a revival of Lonne Elder III's "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men." A gritty domestic drama with dark overtones and much humor, "Ceremonies" was written for the company in 1968, and though its themes are familiar ones, sounded again and again in plays and movies, Elder's sturdy drama shows remarkably little sign of wear.
"Ceremonies" is about how tragedy comes to a family in 1950s Harlem. Russell Parker, the father, is an unemployed barber, a charming dreamer and yarn-spinner who spends his days playing ritual checker games and telling stories so well he even deceives himself. Parker's sons -- Theophilus, a restless schemer, and Bobby, a lightfingered loafer -- are also unemployed, and all three men are bitter about being lectured by daughter Adele. For her part, Adele is full of righteous resentment about supporting three grown men, as her mother did before her.
In Elder's play, the men pay a price to regain their damaged pride and reach what they think of as "victory" in life, and he uses each member of the troubled family to speak his piece about the black condition: the vicious circle of ghetto life, the sad tension between black men and women provoked by economic hardship.
Money changes everything, or so it must seem to those without it. The Parkers' simmering situation comes to a boil with the appearance of Blue Haven, a smooth operator who overcomes misgivings by flashing the persuasive green. Soon the good-hearted but all- too-human Parkers are in over their heads, enmeshed in small-scale organized crime, a booze, numbers and theft racket that drives another wedge into the already splintered family.
creating his role as Russell Parker is Douglas Turner Ward, who, in addition to directing this production, is NEC's artistic director and co-founder. The dynamic and watchable Ward is the center of gravity, with a vibrant voice as rough as two-day beard.
Ward gets some fine acting from his solid company, especially in a sweet, sad scene in which Parker tells his boys how he met their mother, and the two of them get their dad dancing again, while Adele watches quietly, reprovingly from the stairs. Though there are no real revelations in this revival, the NEC's consistently strong performances make for a memorable return.
CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN -- At Ford's Theater through March 3.