‘New Hardware Store’ deals with old issues

By Arlene McKanic

The 4 p.m. show for Black Spectrum Theatre’s presentation of Earl Lovelace’s “The New Hardware Store: A Buy Black Comedy” on Sunday was very nearly sold out. The play, a somewhat impressionistic comedy set after the independence of Trinidad and Tobago and during a period of unrest, was an unusual project for the Black Spectrum as it was put on by the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre.

The play begins when a gentleman dressed in a Harlequin outfit rushes through the audience to the stage wearing a sandwich board hawking the wares of Ablack Hardware. The clown is the cleverly named Rooso (played by the brilliant and hilarious Rudolph Shaw, who’s also the co-director) He is the jovial Calypsonian force of nature who is the opposite number of his uptight boss, A. A. Ablack (Lincoln Brown).

The secretaries, the resigned Marva Calliste (Monica Williams) and the young and sexy Miss Prime (Brie Eley) watch and learn from the men’s battle of wills.

The equally cleverly named Ablack is a capitalist with a definite Scrooge-like world view. His standards for his subordinates are impossible. He expects Rooso to both parade around with the sandwich board in front of the store and to keep non-customers from parking in the lot out back. He refuses to grant Miss Calliste a vacation even though she hasn’t had one in seven years — not since the reign of the old boss, Mr. Cherry, who was white.

More, Ablack won’t even grant her the leave time she accumulated under Cherry. What happened then, he says, isn’t his concern. She hasn’t even been promoted or given shares in the company.

Miss Prime’s voluptuousness might have helped her escape Ablack’s lash, but then again, she’s new. She’s also wary of the ebullient Rooso, who sings and dances Calypso, a powerful political tool as well as entertainment, every day on his lunch hour for the neighborhood crowd.

Brown’s Ablack might be a tyrant, but he’s still an amusing one as he laments how “the system,” set up by white folks, is against him. He then brags about how he uses the system’s corrupt values to get what little success he has.

I wasn’t sure whether Brown actually needed his cane, but its use highlighted Ablack’s unyieldingness and his refusal to embrace life and freedom.

Williams’ Calliste has the world weariness of a former revolutionary whose ideals have been suppressed or co-opted. She still carries a torch for the martyred Dillon, a rebel who was probably her lover. In a long dreamlike sequence Rooso seems to take Dillon’s place as a leader of his people even as he decides to throw off the humiliation of working for Ablack once and for all.

Eley’s Miss Prime goes from a snooty distaste for Rooso to a sort of enlightenment — at the end one gets the feeling that neither she nor Miss Calliste are going to stay with Ablack much longer.

The time of people like Ablack is passing — he will soon join them in the dustbin of history.

Though the structure of the play might be a bit ragged, Lovelace has not only written engaging characters but often allows them moments of beautiful oratory. This is especially true of Ablack as he extols, again and again, his ridiculous Hobbesian beliefs in a palmy Trinidad accent.

The set is simple: a couple of desks, a chair, a box and some crates. The lighting, after some initial glitches, is also good. (The play’s beginning was made a little awkward as Rooso entered while half of the house lights were up and the stage remained dark.)

The play was well-directed by Shaw and E. Wayne McDonald, and Phyllis Cort’s costumes, especially Rooso’s Harlequin suit, were well done.

“The New Hardware Store,” though it finished its run at the Black Spectrum Theatre, will continue at the Community United Methodist Church at 126th Street and Madison Avenue from March 5- March 14. Call 212-289-6157 for ticket information.

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