As the first glint of hope surfaced during the unlikely 2008 Obama campaign, a young man listens intently to the eloquent presidential candidate on a shop radio. An older gentleman walks in, looks around, and asks the youth what he thinks about Obama’s chances. Never going to happen, the young man responds. The older man chortles sarcastically, “Good to know what the younger generation thinks.”
The stage is set. Over the next 90 minutes, the forces of change versus stasis, hope countervailed by fear, and loyalty in combat with betrayal, play out in a dusty old antiques and repair shop, the setting for Keith Powell’s new play, Sophisticated New Ones.
As part of its 13th season, Unexpected Stage Company has mounted this production, artfully directed by Dawn Thomas Reidy, in the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation’s intimate Fireside Room.
You couldn’t ask for a better locale. The wood-paneled room melds seamlessly with the shop’s mélange of treasures and toss-aways. Set designer Kristen Jepperson must have had a ball accumulating and staging this wonderful mess. Come early if you can — just to feast your eyes on the clutter of old chairs, beaded lamps, hard-sided suitcases, bric-a-brac, old TVs (remember when they were actually a piece of furniture?), and framed whatnots. There’s no question that something you see will stir a memory or two.
The Philadelphia-area store belongs to Avery and her son Satcher. It is one of the first Black-owned businesses in the area, passed down from Avery’s estranged husband and his forebears. Over time, the unprofitable enterprise has become both a burden and a solace to mother and son, offering them a routine, an identity, and a convenient escape from a changing world. With one notable exception, Avery has no love for the merchandise. Nonetheless, she keeps a sharp eye on finances and knows that the business is in deep distress. Satcher doesn’t want to hear about profit and loss, but he is a skilled restorer and nurses a genuine curiosity about old stuff.
The fragility of the pair’s world begins to crack open when H, an older man, saunters into the store. Attracted to Avery, whom he has glimpsed as he walks past the shop en route to his job as a security guard at the public library, H brings in a chair for repair. The chair’s unexpected provenance and place in H’s family history become the fulcrum upon which the play evolves.
Three excellent performances bring this drama to life. Lisa Hill-Corley’s world-weariness is tinged with a lingering bitterness about the husband who deserted her. Yet Hill-Corley expertly teases out Avery’s long-buried sensuality, her fierce mothering, and her dead-on practicality. We watch her emotional doors crack open, allowing her to glimpse the hope and change that simmer throughout the play.
Lloyd Ekpe’s Satcher shows the scars of his father’s abandonment. He polishes and protects the inventory as if it were family. Skeptical of progress and fearful of change, he hesitates to celebrate Obama’s win. With the President-elect’s sensational election night speech playing in the background, Satcher still doubts that the first Black president will ever take office.
The nimble and elegant DeJeanette Horne as H brings energy and amusement to his single-minded pursuit of Avery. He courts her with a bottle of wine and a plateful of lobster salad perched jauntily on the shop’s uber-dainty tea tables as the pair settle into comically small velvet chairs for a charming first date. One roots for H from the moment he walks on stage.
Eventually, H will bring about much-needed change in the lives of Avery and her son. It is not without cost, however, to both the pair and the achingly sad business they’ve kept on life support for so long. To his credit, Powell provides no easy answers. Just as the iconic Barack Obama Hope poster tacked to the shop wall seemed to signal a new age, we know now that it did not. There are a lot of bumps and bruises during the life of a country, or a family. We wish them well.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Sophisticated New Ones plays through July 3, 2022, presented by Unexpected Stage Company performing in the Fireside Room of the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation Building, 6301 River Road, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($12.50–$45), call 301-337-8290 or go online.
A virtual performance ($25) is also available through July 17, 2022.
The Sophisticated New Ones program is online here.
COVID Safety: Proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 is required to attend the in-person performances. All patrons must wear a mask during the performance. The Unexpected Stage Health and Safety policy is here.