In conjunction with Pride, a play demonstrates the community’s diversity
Five friends get together to celebrate one of their birthdays and end up divulging the deep secrets and painful losses that unknowingly brought them together years ago. But this play by Robert Jason Jackson is not all about regret and hurt. “Happy Birthday, Madam Alberta” combines humor, music and tales drawn from familiar portraits of contemporary black, gay life to produce a worthwhile show presented by Black Pride NYC, a non-profit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered organization for people of African descent.
To approximate the family that they both want, Madam Alberta and Raymond take into their home a young painter named Cougar, whose ambiguous sexuality raises all three sets of eyebrows.
The interpersonal tensions increase when Alberta’s longtime lesbian friend Billie (Kaci Fannin) arrives with her new, younger girlfriend, Keesha (Nedra McClyde). Social worker Billie met Keesha, reeling from a fractious affair with an incarcerated man, while on the job. Billie, abandoned years earlier by her lover, is fiercely possessive of Keesha, who responds to the neediness with emotionally convoluted behavior.
Each of the characters’ stories is told in part with flashbacks, expertly accomplished by shifting the action and lighting from one area of the stage to another.
These flashbacks are meant to inform the audience. Onstage, the characters learn about their richness and complexity of each other’s lives during the course of a game of “truth or dare” suggested by Madam Alberta.
On a literary level, the play honors canonical gay writers by inference or direct mention. When the play opens, Cougar is painting Madam Alberta’s portrait, an introduction reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Later on, the portrait is unveiled to reveal not a literal representation of Alberta, but an entirely conceptual one, born out of Cougar’s emotional connection to her.
Similarly, a scene involving Keesha and Cougar finds the couple discussing lesbian identity through the French writer Colette, one of whose books Keesha is reading at the beach. There is also mention of Langston Hughes.
Drumgold delivers several wonderful lip-synced ballads.