COURTESY OF ETA CREATIVE ARTS FOUNDATION
Ebenezer Scrooge stood aghast aside the Ghost of Christmas Past. “Why did you show me this!” Scrooge didn’t question—he accused. The audience quietly shared his hollow humiliation. We were morbidly captivated by his younger self’s self-destruction on the stage at eta Creative Arts. The young South Side version of “Scroo’ ”—as he’s referred to in this particular production—has just doused love. He refuses to dance with his girlfriend Belle, who’s serving drinks at his boss’s gala. He claims she’s the hired help, argues he’s a big shot, and narrowly misses a slap. (“You’re lucky I know and love you!”)
He bats away her Christmas gift—a Bible, no less—inveighing senselessly against her liberality. He painfully spotlights her poverty; he lashes out at her faith. She can’t believe him, but he fights further. He calls out to his off-stage boss: Does he want to hear some jokes about black people? He breaks her heart with slurs against his own race. A tip-of-the-iceberg example will suffice: “Why do they put cotton in the tops of medicine bottles?” “To remind black people they were once cotton pickers!”
Playwright Ekundayo Bandele rewrites Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” as the downfall and redemption of a modern-day, race-betraying African-American landlord. Directed by eta’s Kemati Porter, “If Scrooge Was a Brother” follows Bandele’s Ebenezer—Boss Scroo’—from his heinous decision to evict more than sixty low income tenants on Christmas Day, to his reconciliation with his mortally offended clerk Bob Cratchet. In keeping with Dickens’ text, Boss Scroo’s vindictiveness precipitates visitations from his dead manager’s unquiet spirit, the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future. The vignette of Bob Cratchet’s future poverty is so crushingly grim that it shakes Scroo’ to his core—very credibly changing his life. Considerably less credible, however, was eta’s general bid to squeeze a happily-ending, family-friendly Christmas Special into something that initially weighed oppressively and read darkly. Song, dance, and gratuitous special effects made this story of a man’s self-alienation from family, community, and culture tonally split-brained.
It’s harder today to get particularly mad with the nineteenth-century Ebenezer. His humbug is the product of an abused, wayward soul. You can easily forgive him without ever really taking offense. Boss Scroo’ is calculatedly written to anger. His vices are retooled. Usury and miserly ‘grasping’ isn’t nearly repugnant now as unleashing a city’s bribed judicial machinery against the hard-out. Scroo’ frequently jettisons all conversational subtlety for the nuclear options of verbal vindictiveness. His foul mouth brings us straight to the emotional doorstep of Dickens’ original Victorian readership. Scroo’s poisonous racism and bigotry leaves you gawking—indignant and scandalized. He shamelessly puns on “black,” and regularly blames the bums. He asks his street-hustling nephew to leave him be, to go “become fertilizer.” “Go get shot!” he growls, “or overdose in some flophouse!”
We rapidly understand how Scroo’ could legitimately disgust everyone who had ever loved him. Although Boss Scroo’ is regularly overwritten, his absurdity still serves to style him as that much more megalomaniacal. Reggie Glover’s delivery gives Bandele’s Scroo’ the feel of an out-of-touch and absurd man-child. His clipped speech, vigorously pursed lips, and high, nasally voice merges with Scroo’s character to create a self-important, retributive pedant. Even at the moment of his redemption, Scroo’ gushes patronizingly on about his “epiphany,” and asks if the witnessing Cratchets know the word. Scroo’s successfully monstrous characterization makes the Cratchet family’s forgiveness seem quite truly the Christmas miracle.
However, the miracle itself is emphasized too heavy-handedly and the play is unmistakably staged as a Christmas offering—replete with festive musical numbers and surprise choreography. “Scrooge” herein becomes confused. The play’s discourse on the hurtful outcomes of cultural abdication and the bitterness shared between black men can’t plausibly occupy the same stage that suddenly breaks out into cheery song. The Ghost of Christmas Future visits Boss Scroo’ as Cratchet’s grown daughter, Tina. Dismissed from boarding school at Scroo’s whim—drained by poverty after Scroo’ sacked her father and arbitrarily evicted her family—Tina abandons her plaid and stockings for a spangled hoodie and blue eyeliner. She forces Scroo’ to watch her mother’s drunkenness, see her father’s depression before entering the one-room flat herself. Tina’s as sick as Dickens’ Tiny Tim, down with a grave social illness. Her medicine is ironically poison: smuggled oxycodone which Tina admits dealing illegally. This same, grim vignette exists alongside such tonally alien moments like a synchronized hip-hop “Joy to the World” routine, or a round-robin of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas.” It’s hedged by unambiguous, gratuitous, and frequent feel-good biblical citations.
The impulse to produce a pleasing holiday spectacle hamstrung the production with needless special effects. The night’s first visitation from the restless ghost of Scroo’s former boss was completely swallowed up by an echo-generating filter. The smoke machine was an obvious and permanent presence stage-left, clicking audibly in moments of tense silence. The musical cues played almost unpredictably, variably cutting in or out. The initial lines introducing us to Belle were lost in prerecorded carols. The actors competed against the speakers for nearly half the scene. Nothing in the play precluded a more minimalist approach. If anything, it might have emphasized the play’s bitterly hand-to-mouth moments. “Scrooge’s” specials merely muddled.
As Boss Scroo’ watched Belle break down and his younger self exit stage left, The Ghost of Christmas Past turned to him. “You didn’t just wake up to a cold, empty life,” she said. This is an acid truth we swallow with Scroo’, chasing down Bandele’s cocktail of self-hate, stinginess, and willful ignorance. “If Scrooge Was a Brother” meaningfully updates Dickens’ original emotional punches, and appropriating Dickens’ easily referenced, iconic figures gave a helpful framework for discussing genuinely troubling issues. But this structure struggled to also support a good time for all ages. The abundant carols were hard to warm up to. The play’s giddier moments were dissonant. The staging needn’t try and assume the holiday’s cheer outright. Soberingly relevant, an effective call towards solidarity and goodwill, “Scrooge” nevertheless was asked to accomplish a bit too much with too much flair.
eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. Chicago Ave. Through December 29. Friday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3pm, 7pm. $30; $15 with senior/student I.D. (773)752-3955. etacreativearts.org