PAST Productions presents classic piece of black theater

Lonne Elder III's “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” is a piece of African-American theater that lives on a timeline that includes masterworks from “A Raisin in the Sun” to “Boyz n the Hood.”

Indeed, one of Elder's earliest theatrical experiences was in the original Broadway cast of Lorraine Hansberry's “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1959. Turning to writing for stage and screen, Elder penned a number of titles, the best-known being “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men,” which saw Elder joining Hansberry as a stage-setter for celebrated African-American playwrights Charles Fuller and August Wilson.

PAST Productions co-founder Patricia Wallace-Winbush said the company has performed the works of Fuller and Wilson, and felt it was time to add Elder's play to the company's repertoire.

“This was one of the shows we talked about when [PAST] first got together [in 2012],” Wallace-Winbush said in a phone interview. “We do plays by black playwrights about the black experience.”

That said, Wallace-Winbush offered that the themes in “Ceremonies” are, in many respects, universal — “dreams, bad decisions, disappointments” — and that the production is not only targeted to black audiences.

“Even though it's black theater, there is something for everyone,” she said. “You wouldn't not go to a play about Catholics just because you [aren't] Catholic.”

Which offers another interesting connection, since “Ceremonies” has been compared with the work of Irish playwright Sean O'Casey for its balance of tragedy and victory, in addition to its treatment of the everyday, blue-collar experience.

At the center of “Ceremonies” is Russell Parker, an aging former tap dancer who runs a barber shop in Harlem. He's lost whatever ambition he once had and is more concerned with his daily checkers game. Russell is talked into a nefarious business scheme.

“He's living in the past, as somebody who never got the accolades he felt he deserved as a dancer,” said Scott Porter, who plays Russell. “He starts this underground business and it begins to give him some status. But it doesn't help his family. What he thought would make them stronger is actually tearing them apart.”

Winbush said the play resonates.

“The characters feel real,” she said. “Sadly, I don't know if they learn any lessons.”