Horizon debuts local playwright’s ‘Square Blues’

The cast of Atlanta playwright Shay Youngblood’s “Square Blues,” continuing through Aug. 21 at Horizon Theatre, includes Chantal Maurice (from left), Jay Jones, Parris Sarter and Patty de la Garza.

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The cast of Atlanta playwright Shay Youngblood’s “Square Blues,” continuing through Aug. 21 at Horizon Theatre, includes Chantal Maurice (from left), Jay Jones, Parris Sarter and Patty de la Garza.

Horizon Theatre’s history producing the works of Atlanta playwright Shay Youngblood dates back to 1988, when the Little Five Points company premiered her durable signature piece, “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery,” an intricately drawn series of episodic vignettes centered around a young Black woman coming of age in the rural South during the 1980s, and all the strong female role models in her life who help to shape her identity.

I missed seeing and reviewing Horizon’s 1995 staging of Youngblood’s “Talking Bones,” a mystical family drama about three generations of women, or its 2010 rendition of her one-act children’s show “Amazing Grace,” involving an adolescent Black girl with dreams of landing the role of Peter Pan in a school play. But I still have exceedingly fond memories of thoroughly enjoying (and raving about) the troupe’s 2010 revival of “Shakin’,” which was vibrantly envisioned by director Thomas W. Jones II, a frequent Horizon collaborator, and performed to the hilt by a truly extraordinary ensemble.

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Horizon Theatre’s “Square Blues,” written by Atlanta playwright Shay Youngblood, features Jay Jones and Chantal Maurice.

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

Horizon Theatre’s “Square Blues,” written by Atlanta playwright Shay Youngblood, features Jay Jones and Chantal Maurice.

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

Combined ShapeCaption
Horizon Theatre’s “Square Blues,” written by Atlanta playwright Shay Youngblood, features Jay Jones and Chantal Maurice.

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

That stellar production likely would be a hard act to follow for the triumvirate of Youngblood, Jones and Horizon, under any circumstances. Sure enough, in the disappointing “Square Blues,” their latest endeavor, Youngblood tells another story about generational contrasts among a Southern Black family, each of whom is a social or political rebel in her or his own way.

This time, the setting is 1992 Atlanta. The aging matriarch, Odessa Blue (portrayed by Olivia Dawson), is the widowed owner of the 5th Avenue Happy Cafe, a “kosher soul food” restaurant started by her late (white and Jewish) husband. Her 40-ish son, Square Blue (Jay Jones), is a struggling artist and single father, standing up for slavery reparations, “global liberation” and righting a governmental wrong, even as he’s indebted to the IRS for its erroneous $47,000 overpayment in his last tax refund. His 20-something daughter, Karma Blue (Chantal Maurice), is a radical lesbian AIDS activist.

The principal cast of characters also features Square’s longtime love interest, a vivacious and independent-minded farmer, Miss Tuesday (Parris Sarter understudying for Marliss Amiea on opening night), and Karma’s quirky girlfriend, Lola (Patty de la Garza). And director Jones invests the show with his customary panache, including at least one energetically choreographed protest demonstration.

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Olivia Dawson appears as the matriarch of an Atlanta family in “Square Blues” at Horizon Theatre.

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

Olivia Dawson appears as the matriarch of an Atlanta family in “Square Blues” at Horizon Theatre.

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

Combined ShapeCaption
Olivia Dawson appears as the matriarch of an Atlanta family in “Square Blues” at Horizon Theatre.

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

In the comparatively drab scenic design of Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, a backdrop of transparent screens representing the walls of the Happy Cafe are used to highlight the innovative projection design of Robbie Hayes. Throughout the play, as Square continues adding to his mural in the diner, depicting various historical “symbols of resistance,” their images gradually materialize on the walls.

When Karma is arrested — yet again — for spray-painting graffiti during one of her rallies, her own brand of artwork appears on the screens as if in real time. When Odessa pays her a visit in jail, the two of them simply sit on opposite sides of a table in the diner, and it’s basically left to Hayes’ projected prison bars to set the change of scene. In one dream sequence, Odessa sees her late husband from the other side of one of the screens.

Casual, fleeting references are made about how Odessa doesn’t approve of Square’s revolutionary actions; how he doesn’t fully understand some of Karma’s life choices; or how she, in turn, feels their love is “suffocating” her. But most of those character details and potential plots threads remain unsubstantiated or unresolved.

It rings a little emotionally hollow, for instance, to learn that a close friend of Karma’s has suddenly died from AIDS, because she barely even mentions the guy any earlier in the play. Much more problematically, Odessa walks into another scene with an empty lock-box from her safe, suggesting that Square might have taken the cash to pay his IRS bill — and then the issue is never addressed again.

By dividing her narrative attention among the three different family members, instead of establishing a singular focal point or protagonist for the story, Youngblood essentially spreads “Square Blues” too thin, in deference to covering a few too many topical bases.


THEATER REVIEW

“Square Blues”

Through Aug. 21. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. $27-$35. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. (in Little Five Points), Atlanta. 404-584-7450, www.horizontheatre.com.

Bottom line: A well-meant but relatively unfocused generational family story.