"East Side Mommas," a play about a fractured family on Buffalo's impoverished East Side that wrapped up a three-day run on Saturday night in Buffalo East, opens with a jarring news report of the sort too often heard on area television broadcasts.
We learn from the report that a 15-year-old boy has shot and killed a bed-ridden 75-year-old man and made off with his victim's paltry amount of cash. In the tightly circumscribed world of this moving play by longtime East Side minister Anne Paris and directed by June L. Saunders Duell, news like this serves as a near-constant backdrop to lives that may crumble apart at any moment.
The God-fearing characters of "East Side Mommas," like too many actual East Side residents if not nearly all, have been beaten down by years of systematic disinvestment, neglect and other nasty products of the stubborn and corrosive force of institutional racism.
The play's protagonist, Destiny Livingston (Al-Nisaa Rashid-Santiago), is a recovered crack addict working two jobs and raising two sons -- one of whom is locked up for a crime he didn't commit while the other constantly skips school and threatens to follow in the footsteps of his older brother. Destiny's closest friend Matty (Daysha Witt), also a recovering addict, has had it even worse: Her stepfather molested her as a child, a factor that played into her failed marriage to an abusive husband and her failed struggle to prevent Child Protective Services from taking her son away from her.
Despite her troubles, which are deep and always seem on the verge of multiplying, Destiny holds onto hope for a better life. She tries to start a full-service business spa in order to raise enough money to help free her son from jail, but her request for a small-business loan is denied. When Matty steals what money she has been able to raise to buy new outfits and both of her sons berate her for entirely superficial reasons, she turns to God.
The play, though it could benefit from a stronger flow and some judicious cuts, is packed with chilling pieces of dialogue that ring frighteningly true. When Destiny criticizes her youngest son Davon (Valentino T. Shine Jr.) for failing math, he comes back: "You fail, you go to jail. That's where they want all of us, isn't it?"
While studying for history class, Davon's girlfriend Daneesha (Dereka D. Steveson) offers this reflection on the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson: "How we supposed to respect the Declaration of Independence when it was written by some white hypocrite?"
These are strong statements, sure to create discussion among audiences. Just the kinds of statements, whether you agree with them or not, that a local playwright ought to be making.
In Buffalo, where there are more than 20 active professional or semi-professional theater companies, there has for too long been a dearth of stage material about the city's largest and most compelling real-life drama. That is to say, the drama that plays out daily in the lives of many city residents on the East Side and elsewhere, who valiantly combat the ravages of poverty in a way most Western New Yorkers can scarcely begin to comprehend.
Fortunately for local theatergoers, that trend is just beginning to break down. Powerful material that addresses the lives and experiences of the city's poor residents of all races are, at long last, beginning to trickle into more theater spaces in and around the city -- an indication that the various segments of one of America's most segregated cities might be starting to understand one another.
"East Side Mommas," for its part, contains the kernel of a what could be an extremely strong piece of work. With some significant cuts, a bit of wise editing and a longer run, Paris' play could go a long way toward accomplishing that noble goal.
"East Side Mommas"
4 stars (out of 4)
Presented by Buffalo East Art Space, 1410 Main St.