- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Local actresses Beverly Cosham and Jewell Robinson need little adornment. Washington favorites for years, the pair possess such a sense of poise, humor and history that anything else but their combined presence seems superfluous.

That’s why “A Monday Night With Bess and Tess,” a new comedy by Caleen Sinnette Jennings, presented by the African Continuum Theatre Company at the H Street Playhouse, is a puzzlement. It appears to be merely an excuse for these two veteran actors and friends to get together onstage and share a chin-wag with the audience — not too shabby an idea for a play.

However, it is in the concept and execution that “Bess and Tess” falls short. The play’s conceit has Miss Cosham and Miss Robinson playing black actresses of a certain age. Bess (Miss Cosham) is planning to retire from theater; Tess (Miss Robinson) wants to keep on fighting. Tess cooks up a scheme to make a video audition tape that would show casting directors their wide range and their ability to transcend color barriers. She also hopes that the evening will be such a blast that Bess will reconsider backing away from the footlights.

The audition tape has them playing characters in original scenes that are in the styles of Oscar Wilde, Lorraine Hansberry and William Shakespeare and a contemporary playwright along the lines of Neil Simon or Craig Wright. This is where the play falters, as the faux scenes are mostly nowhere near as accomplished or poignant as something that would have been written by the original authors. The meandering patter between the set pieces is not terribly compelling either and seems to suffer from a lack of focus.

The Wilde rip-off tries to capture his high-toned, labyrinthine dialogue, but the result is a sophomoric and elaborate ruse to pull off a groaner of a one-liner at the end. The second piece, meant to evoke the black “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s and ‘70s, is more effective, due to the complexity and richness of the main characters, a schoolteacher (Miss Robinson), who defiantly believes that the civil rights movement will destroy “the natural order,” and a freedom fighter (Miss Cosham), who is trying to get her to register to vote. The blunt, heated exchanges between Miss Robinson’s self-hating black woman and Miss Cosham’s idealistic activist have a harsh ring of authenticity that makes this scene come alive.

The fourth offering, “Listing and Rolling,” takes place in post-September 11 Brooklyn. Miss Cosham’s character tries to reconcile with her estranged sister (Miss Robinson) in a middle-of-the-night showdown that is both desperate and wildly funny. The two snippy sisters move from defensiveness and anger to forgiveness before the dawn breaks on them sitting happily on the sofa, smoking marijuana for nonmedicinal purposes.

There is an overall air of preaching to the converted in “Bess and Tess.” You would assume that most people would already be aware of the vitality and acting acumen of the two actresses, and even if they didn’t, four elaborately contrived scenes are not going to convince them otherwise. Miss Cosham and Miss Robinson have already broken the racial barrier in their careers and have been involved in productions with “colorblind casting,” although one could argue that directors could always be more creative when it comes to nontraditional casting. Is the play actually a trumped-up audition, in the hopes that local casting directors will see them and think, “I’ve found my Hedda Gabler” or “King Lear as a middle-aged woman — why not?”

Despite the play’s limitations, it’s a treat to see Miss Cosham and Miss Robinson on any stage, but a particular delight to see them together. You suspect there lurks a richer, more successful evening of entertainment based on these two actresses telling their own stories.

**

WHAT: “A Monday Night with Bess and Tess,” by Caleen Sinnette Jennings

WHERE: H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 27

TICKETS: $20 to $28

PHONE: 800/494-8497

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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