Lonne Elder III's "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men" was one of the more notable plays to come out of the eruption of black theater in the late 1960s. The fierce study of a poor Harlem family that gets caught up in a bootlegging and numbers scheme and is ultimately destroyed by quick money and reckless dreams, it possessed a strong moral core.
"Whitey" took a lot of blame in other plays of that era. But while Elder recognized that "the system" was rigged against the black man, he was not about to let his characters off the hook that easily. He gave them fundamental moral choices to make and then obliged them to pay the price of their actions. As a result, "Ceremonies" had a dramatic fullness that elevated it above the pack.
Its strengths are still evident in the revival, which the Negro Ensemble Company brought to Ford's Theatre Wednesday night for a four-week run. This is not an ideal production -- the acting gets a bit spotty in places -- but it manages to deliver a number of sharp jabs to the gut, if not the ultimate knockout punch.
The central character is Russell B. Parker (Douglas Turner Ward), who danced in vaudeville until his legs gave out and then opened a barbershop. In seven years, however, he has not made "enough money to buy two hot dogs" -- preferring instead to play checkers with a crony, spin tall tales about his past and tout the book he's always on the verge of writing. His two sons are no more productive. Theopolis (Ruben Hudson) is a drifter whose current desire to be a painter is but one in a long line of ambitions destined for the junk heap. Bobby (Walter Allen Bennett Jr.) is a nimble-fingered thief.
Parker's wife went to her grave trying to keep this family together, and now the only breadwinner is the daughter, Adele (Patty Holley). Adele, however, has served an ultimatum: either the men find jobs or they ship out. That's when the tempter makes his appearance.
He comes in the form of Blue Haven, a slick, soft-spoken con man, dressed in a powder-blue suit and sporting dark glasses and a gold-tipped cane. As Keith David plays him -- which is effortlessly, indeed -- he is smooth as suede, as long as you don't brush him the wrong way. Blue Haven proposes using the barbershop as a front for his operations and before long the Parkers are doing a brisk under-the-counter business in "black lightning."
Each of the family members will pay a frightful toll for the sudden infusion of cash into their lives. But Elder reserves his richest writing for Parker, who sees this windfall as his last chance to break out of the ghetto and sample the good life with a sweet young thing on his arm, even if that sweet young thing is a conniving tramp. Ward vividly captures the breathless desperation of an old pantaloon, dancing a final jig and trying to put off the inevitable tomorrow.
But there's also a strain of courage in the character, who's facing up to mortality the only way he knows how. Ward doesn't make that so clear. He neatly exploits the comedy in the role, pushing Parker on occasion to the edge of cartoon, but he seems reluctant to explore the character's more somber corners. It's a commanding performance, but not the virtuoso turn it apparently was in 1968, when Ward first created the role.
Holley gives a lovely performance as the strong-willed daughter who comes to realize that the black matriarch, by struggling so hard to protect her men, also contributes to his victimization in society. Bennett and Ruben are serviceable as the sons. Tracy Camila Johns comes in way under the mark, however, as the cheap pick-up who tries to fleece Parker. Unfortunately, she appears in the latter stretches of the play, and her amateurism takes the drama down a peg or two, just as it's building to a climax.
Still, "Ceremonies" has held up well over the years. It no longer seems as violent as it once did -- perhaps because we keep surpassing ourselves in that department. But its compassion for the dispossessed and its insights into the souls of the misguided remain undimmed by time.
CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN. By Lonne Elder III. Directed by Douglas Turner Ward. Set, Charles Henry McClennahan; lighting, Shirley Prendergast; costumes, Judy Dearing. With Douglas Turner Ward, Graham Brown, Ruben Hudson, Walter Allen Bennett Jr., Patty Holley, Keith David, Tracy Camila Johns. At Ford's Theatre through March 3.