- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

Playwright Javon Johnson galvanized Studio Theater audiences last year with the musicality and ease of his play "Hambone," an agreeable slice of Southern-fried life set in a sandwich shop in Anderson, S.C. His new work, "Runaway Home," is far more ambitious and far less successful.
"Runaway Home" is set in the same small town, and the characters are black, but the similarities with "Hambone" end there. This new work, set in 1981 at the dawn of the Reagan administration, tackles family disintegration, emotional abuse, abandonment and other emotionally supercharged issues. However, tackling is not the same as rigorous exploring, and as a result, "Runaway Home" is a random, unresolved grab bag of strained "social relevance" and family melodrama.
Message and "issue" plays can be so hard to bring to life, and "Runaway Home" is an unfortunate case in point. Except for a scene where a mother and daughter express their anger through a game of cards, none of the scenes is built with any concern for dramatic structure or interest. They are just lame pretexts for droning, thinly dramatized agitprop that verges on self-parody.
There is another problem: a stage full of unsympathetic characters. Except for the Moore family's two youngest children, Tee Tee (Javier D. Brown) and Junebug (Christopher Gallant III), these are people with whom you don't want to spend a lot of time.
It's not the cast's fault. The pacing is sloppy, and a narrative arc is nonexistent, leading to flubbed dialogue and actors stepping on each other's lines. Where was director Reggie Life in all this?
Especially unlikable is the main character, BettyAnn (Rosalyn Coleman), a beautiful 36-year-old woman and single mother of five children by a variety of absentee fathers.
She has gotten through life on looks alone, and still possesses them in the play's dramatic present. One of her suitors, Thomas (Frederick Strothers), brings her free groceries, while another, Big Eddie (Cleo Reginald Pizana), gives her a break on firewood and drops by with food, flowers and hooch.
While we are supposed to view these suitors as positive male role models to the Moore children Tee Tee and Junebug and older siblings Angel (Edwina Findley), Shadymae (Ashley Blaine Featherson) and Steedee (Brandon J. Price) you have to wonder if their true motivations aren't more self-interestedly libidinal.
Aside from the little ones, this is one self-centered bunch of whiners. Angel gripes about getting to Washington to obtain a college scholarship; Shadymae moans about wanting to go out and be sexually active; and Steedee mopes because no one treats him like a man.
But BettyAnn wins the whine award. Granted, she works and is a provider, but she is not above blowing her own horn about all the sacrifices she's made. Sullen and angry, BettyAnn goes through her life completely numb in fact, she seems like a textbook depressive. She talks of having children as having a man "squeeze" her, and then a short time later, a baby arrives. It's as if she's barely a conscious participant in her own maternity.
While Miss Coleman exudes the strength and presence of a younger Angela Bassett, BettyAnn is a stick figure, and you tire of her single dimension very quickly. So when the play's big shock arrives BettyAnn abandons her five children to run off with her high school sweetheart, Paul (Sekou Laidlow), a smooth pop crooner you aren't devastated as much as annoyed. And perhaps relieved, because it signals that the play's end is near.
Playwright Tom Stoppard once decried the "deeply embarrassing" fallacy that assumes that because a work of art touches on important questions, the work itself is therefore also important.
It's a good thing Mr. Stoppard never sat through this tedious sermon. It's so embarrassing you'll want to run away home.

WHAT: "Runaway Home" by Javon Johnson
WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Through Feb. 16
TICKETS: $25 to $44.25
PHONE: 202/332-3300

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