Thomas W. Jones II seems to have found a summer home at Horizon Theatre. The actor/director/composer co-founded Jomandi Productions in the late 1970s, but left the Atlanta-based African-American theater company in 2000. In the past decade, however, Jones has frequently collaborated with Horizon on summer productions that coincide with the National Black Arts Festival, including his world premiere musicals Two Queens, One Castle and Three Sistahs.
Jones takes to the Horizon stage to co-star in his latest world premiere, A Cool Drink of Water. A non-musical play, Water nonetheless presents a kind of jazz improvisation on themes that Lorraine Hansberry explored in 1959 with her landmark African-American drama A Raisin in the Sun. Andrea Frye directs the oft-engaging comedy/drama that seems more confident with the comedy than the drama.
Both Raisin and Water present family members at odds over what to do with a late parent’s legacy. Hansberry’s Younger family argued over how to spend its late father’s inheritance. In Water, Walt Young (Jones), recently forced into retirement, wants to sell his late mother’s house to eager developers and establish a nightclub/bed-and-breakfast. Meanwhile, his distraught sister Benita (Marguerite Hannah) wants to keep the house and grapples with her strained marriage, as well as late-night conversations with the ghost of her mother (Bernardine Mitchell, pleasingly earthy rather than ethereal).
A humanitarian trip to Africa instigates Benita’s mid-life crisis. The experience's depressing outcome presents a pragmatic counterargument to Raisin’s more positive view of Africa as a cultural homeland. While Hannah’s no slouch at playing “life-force” roles in other shows, Benita’s internal conflicts manifest themselves in abstract dialogue that sounds stilted compared to the rest of the play’s casual naturalism.
Raisin touched on African-American upward mobility and the costs of assimilation, while Water seems more focused on what a family should do after they’ve already achieved the upper-middle-class American dream. The production puts most of its emphasis on shoring up the relationships within families: husbands and wives, fathers and sons, etc. Water features many charming sequences with spouses airing good-natured complaints and trying to woo each other back after spats. Walt proves particularly frustrated with the standards for relationships in an era of glossy magazines and self-help books.
Jones drives the play’s humor with his flamboyant acting as Walt, who frequently breaks into song. At one point his wife Ruthie (Donna Biscoe) complains that Walt’s presence can fill a room and smother her — Jones seems to take that trait to heart a little too much. His highly entertaining performance nevertheless tips Water off-balance, to the point where his light-hearted subplots overwhelm the dramatic elements. It seems strange to critique a play for making audiences laugh too much, but given A Cool Drink of Water’s historic inspiration, you wish Jones’ serious side could match his jokes.