EL PASO by Michael Miller, directed by Philip Akin, with Kahmaara Armatrading, Amanda Brugel, David Collins, Lili Francks, Rothaford Gray, Jeff Jones, Kim Roberts and Satori Shakoor. Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Runs to October 27, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Sunday and October 26 at 2 pm. $22-$30, Sunday pwyc-$22. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNN
Decades of suppressed anger pump the blood through Michael Miller's El Paso, and it drives the play forward despite some problems with the writing and the production. This is an ambitious work about dreams denied to four generations of an African-American family, people who burn with a desire for independence and love but often act with cruelty.
Set in two time periods, the play charts the many stresses and few joys in the life of Vivian (Satori Shakoor), who's dying of cancer in 1988 and hoping to escape to 1958 family memories that offer solace. She's hemmed in by a philandering, lying husband (David Collins), a demanding mother (Lili Francks), a sister (Kim Roberts) denied freedom, a daughter (Amanda Brugel) unable to prove her worth and a proud grandfather (Jeff Jones).
As we watch a cycle of abuse continue from one era to another, Miller provides some strong writing, especially in the sassy, bitchy comedy of the early scenes and in the final series of confrontations.
But he's packed too many stories into this tale, at times not fleshing them out, at others offering too simplistic an explanation of the action. As a result, director Philip Akin's production sometimes skims the surface and doesn't open up the characters. Also a problem is a rushed ending that fails to provide the intended emotional resolution and thus feels pat.
Still, there's real excitement in seeing a mainstage filled with black actors, and the performers offer some memorable work, including Shakoor, Roberts, Jones, Collins and especially Francks, who as Ida Lee begins as a villain and ends as one of El Paso's most sympathetic figures.