Veteran performers elevate Horizon’s ‘Right On’

Whether it’s coincidental or by design, Horizon Theatre’s world-premiere production of Darren Canady’s “Right On” is a perfectly fitting collaboration. The enduring Little Five Points company is now in its 30th-anniversary season, and the play happens to concern a 30-year reunion among a group of former friends and college classmates.

They’re portrayed by an illustrious ensemble of familiar Horizon faces — Donna Biscoe (“A Cool Drink a Water”), Marguerite Hannah (“Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery”), Tonia Jackson (“And Her Hair Went With Her”), Minka Wiltz (“Every Tongue Confess”) and LaParee Young (“Sheddin’”) — under the customarily energized guidance of Thomas W. Jones II (who previously directed them in each of those earlier shows).

Given the veteran talents on hand, if you’ve been around long enough and seen your fair share of local theater, “Right On” may indeed feel like a homecoming of sorts. Not even the young, Kansas-based Canady is a total stranger to Atlanta audiences; his drama “False Creeds” was staged in 2007 by the Alliance, as winner of the theater’s annual Kendeda graduate playwriting competition.

The thoughtful “Creeds” was an inherently somber account of a relatively little-known historical tragedy (the 1921 race riots in Tulsa, Okla.). Conversely, “Right On” is essentially pure fiction — and most effective in its lighter moments, not in serious ones that tend to feel more imposed on the characters than genuinely developed.

The action takes place in 2004 at an unnamed Midwestern university, largely involving the putting on of a funky musical-variety show they last performed together in 1974. But it also involves the putting aside of past differences, many of which date back to their campus days as black activists.

Bella (Biscoe) was the most politically driven of them, she who paid the highest price for her convictions and then basically turned a cold and bitter shoulder to all of her friends. Some of their heated discussions about fighting the good fight, about selling out and moving on, about social progress and dreams deferred, have dramatic weight and merit. “The world’s not a just place,” one of them finally observes. “It’s just a place.”

Other back stories and subplots, however, seem too soap-operatic. Bella and Patrice (Wiltz) both had love affairs with Ronald (Young). Sharonda (Hannah) is a cancer survivor, with a white husband to boot. It’s only a matter of time before one of the women inevitably reveals having had an abortion. Eventually, Bella’s sense of security in her career is also challenged.

Nonetheless, each of the adults in the cast makes the best of their occasionally hackneyed material. Newcomer Dane Troy doesn’t fare so well lending much depth or dimension to his role as Bella’s vaguely suicidal and bipolar teenage son.

As certainly as that show within the show must go on, “Right On” ultimately thrives on a lot of the spirited comic relief provided by Hannah, Jackson and Wiltz, which includes a truly groovy rendition of the ’70s pop hit “Mr. Big Stuff.” Later, Biscoe and Young join in on a couple of big “Soul Train”-inspired numbers that are equally memorable and easy to dig, featuring original songs by music director S. Renee Clark and trippy costumes designed by Nyrobi Moss.

“Right On” is billed as “a soul-filled story with laughs, tears and a funky beat.” In the end, two out of three ain’t bad.

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