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Family values: Hallelujah Street Blues

Valetta Anderson's play performs neighborhood watch

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The demographic changes in an old Atlanta neighborhood set the foundation for the conflicts in Hallelujah Street Blues, Horizon Theatre's world premiere production of local playwright Valetta Anderson's comedy/drama. Real estate provides fertile ground for dramatic tension, since our homes can serve as investments, status symbols and markers of family history. A land deal might be the closest you can come to selling a piece of yourself.

Novelist Nathan McCall used the "urban renewal" of Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward as the crux of his compelling 2007 novel Them. The book illuminated details such as the condescension in the phrase "urban pioneers" to describe the white influx into traditionally black neighborhoods. Hallelujah Street Blues, however, focuses more on generations than gentrification.

Neighborhood reconstruction exposes the changes and discord within an African-American family, but Hallelujah Street Blues' cozy portrayal and amiable cast doesn't fully exploit its promising premise. The new play feels like a fixer-upper in need of renovation.

Anderson cleverly uses contemporary details to define her characters, such as the way matriarch Josephine (Veronica Redd), who struggles with diabetes, hides her blood sugar monitor from her grown children so it won't reveal her secret fondness for Pop Tarts. Anderson nods to the present-day housing woes in the revelation that Josephine's homestead could've sold for a quarter of a million dollars before the real estate bubble burst, but it's still a prized property in Josephine's "hot" neighborhood.

The street rumbles with the noise of developers tearing down dilapidated apartments to put up towering condos, and the construction threatens the apple orchard Josephine's late husband planted. Her son Nathan ("Hill Street Blues'" Taurean Blacque) equates the trees with his deceased father and makes a bid to protect the orchard. He allies himself with his brother-in-law Carter (Eric Ware), a slick but failing lawyer who suggests that Nathan negotiate with the developers without Josephine's knowledge. Anderson shows a deft grasp of "zoning variances" and other real estate rules and avoids oversimplifying this side of the story.

The local land grab brings family issues out into the open. Nathan bickers about his ailing mother's health care with his sister Clarice (Keena Redding Hunt), who advocates selling Josephine's house. Clarice and Carter squabble over marital problems and parenting disagreements, and Clarice eagerly flirts with William (Gordon Danniels), an old high school pal.

Blacque and several other actors had difficulty with their lines at the performance I attended, but generally they have good chemistry together, joking around with the ease of a real family, particularly during the laid-back ritual of mixing back-porch Kool-Aid. Carter's finicky reactions to Josephine's down-home ways, along with Ware's laconic delivery, provide some of the play's most entertaining moments. It's refreshing that the white-collar professional isn't a caricature of evil, like you'd find in any given Tyler Perry project. Hallelujah implies a surprising tolerance of marital infidelity, but the theme deserves more fleshing out.

Horizon's marketing describes the play as "'Soul Food' meets 'The Waltons,'" which indicates that Hallelujah doesn't aim particularly high. Deborah Calloway Duke's amusing performance as delusional neighbor Dorothy, who's forever calling after her nonexistent pet dog, feels like both a contrived excuse for laughs and a trite "holy fool" character along the lines of a second-hand August Wilson. Director Thomas W. Jones orchestrates some sitcom-worthy activity, as when angry Clarice gesticulates with a kitchen knife, or the way Josephine won't put down a glass so Carter can drink from it. Frequently the jokes pander to the audience.

Jones has an esteemed reputation and long history in Atlanta as co-founder of Jomandi Productions, Atlanta's major African-American theater company during the 1980s and '90s. For the past five seasons, he's directed Horizon's summer play, a local or world premiere production that coincides with the National Black Arts Festival (and some, like Hallelujah, are also part of Horizon's annual New South Play Festival).

Horizon's relationship with Jones has proved highly inconsistent, with highlights including last year's musical version of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, and the low point being 2004's misguided musical Two Queens, One Castle. Hallelujah Street Blues' emphasis on family dynamics and the fate of some beloved trees evokes Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard only slightly less explicitly than Horizon's and Jones' 2006 musical Three Sistahs paid homage to Chekhov's The Three Sisters. Hallelujah features some charmingly quiet, Chekhov-like moments, such as Josephine's earthy reminiscences of her late husband, sensitively played by Redd. An equal amount of the serious moments prove overwrought, however, such as one character's near mental breakdown.

The theater staged edgier new scripts with African-American themes in the late '90s, including A Hole in the Dark and Hambone, but the comparable shows for the past several years have been far more tame. Maybe that's the price of broader appeal. However predictable and sentimental, Hallelujah Street Blues packed the house at Horizon when I attended. Perhaps, in its cultivation of new plays, Horizon resembles the kind of land developer that knows its market.

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