The Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock is inviting theatergoers on a journey following a family that is both loving and chaotic, something cast and crew members say many will relate to.
Jar the Floor, a comedy written by Cheryl L. West, follows four generations of black women who get together to celebrate the 90th birthday of the family matriarch, MaDear (CeCelia Antoinette). Though they’ve gathered for a celebration, dysfunction among the family members ensues throughout the play. Jar the Floor runs March 29 through April 16.
From left, Erikka Walsh (Raisa), Maya Jackson (Vennie), CeCelia Antoinette (MaDear), Shannon Lamb (Maydee) and Joy Lynn Jacobs (Lola) star in The Rep’s production of Jar the Floor. Photo by John David Pittman.
“In the course of that day, all of the family secrets and old wounds get opened up and worked through to some degree in the play,” said director Gilbert McCauley.
When McCauley first premiered the play in Seattle in the ‘90s, he was compelled by the characters’ cultural expression — from the dialogue of the Mississippi-born matriarch to the style of speech of her daughter, Lola (Joy Lynn Jacobs), who eventually moved to Illinois. But every time he works with the piece, he sees something new.
“Now, this is the fifth time that I’ve done this play, and I’m really pulled in even more by this notion of things that go unacknowledged in families and the way they cover them up or not acknowledge them,” he said. “I’m much more aware of that. Maybe that’s just having lived more life and having a family myself.”
Jar the Floor marks the eighth production that McCauley, a St. Louis native, has directed at The Rep. Coming back to The Rep is sort of like coming home, he said.
“Coming back here and working has just been a lot of fun for me,” he said. “I really have a lot of respect for the folks who work here.”
For actress Shannon Lamb—who plays Maydee, Lola’s daughter — central Arkansas is home. Lamb is a North Little Rock native who lived in New York after high school.
“I am so happy to be home. I recently moved to Massachusetts, and it’s freezing cold,” said Lamb, who has played Maydee before. “So one thing when I was cast in the show, I was like, ‘Yes, I get to go home to nice weather. Not only just the atmosphere, I love the South. I’m a product of the South.”
Lamb also said her character, Maydee, is a workaholic college professor who tries to instill structure in her free-spirited daughter, Vennie (Maya Jackson). Lamb said that audience members will see how hurt is passed down through the family.
“It does not matter what race you are or if you grew up with a lot of money, middle class or struggling, everyone can relate to the dynamic between the mom and a daughter or their sisters or their siblings or if they have an aunt that is a spitfire just like Lola, my mom,” Lamb said. “Anyone can relate to it. This happens to be seeing it through the eyes of an African-American family, but when people sit down and watch it, they’ll be like, ‘This is my family.’”
McCauley said the story of mother-daughter relationships is told through the lens of humor and compassion. After all, Jar the Floor is the kind of production that makes you laugh then punches you in the stomach, he said.
“Cheryl lets you see how they don’t listen, how they mishear things, how they talk over each other, the ways in which the situations come up because they haven’t dealt with things,” he said of the characters. “Those things reflect some of the humor.”
During rehearsal, there are times when the cast needs a break to laugh because the story is so hilarious, Lamb said, but the story still resonates on a more serious level.
“Every family has their drama and their issues and their love. However, being an African American woman and growing up in a black family, I know in the black community, often times when there’s stuff going on in our family, it’s like you don’t address it,” Lamb said. “Everyone knows, but you act like it’s literally not there. If you were an outsider visiting, you’d think this is a perfect family. The truth is: You don’t move on because if you don’t address it, the healing can’t happen. Hurt people hurt people.”
As hilarious as the play is, Lamb said audience members may walk back to their cars blowing their nose and wiping their eyes after the show.
“Come prepared to laugh until you can’t take it anymore,” Lamb said, “and come prepared to be moved.”
For Jar the Floor tickets or more information, visit therep.org.