This TV production is a faithful adaptation of Lonne Elder III's stage play about one African-American family trying to prosper by fair means or foul. This one-set drama is very much a stage-bound production, but in this case that's a positive trait. The camera seldom moves, the cuts are infrequent. The pacing is slow ... but the overall effect here is one of stateliness and dignity, rather than stasis or doldrums.
The setting is the Harlem barber shop of Russell B Parker. For working-class blacks in America (as for small-town whites), the barber shop is the traditional social centre for adult males: there are plenty of chairs and reading materials, and men who have nothing to do but hang out all day can pretend they're waiting for a haircut. Parker is a man of big dreams but small ambitions: he doesn't work any harder than he has to, but he can talk all night on any subject, and he spontaneously bursts into vaudeville dance routines. As portrayed here by Douglas Turner Ward (better known as a playwright than as an actor), Parker is an extremely realistic and believable human being.
This is a drama about family relationships, and a paradox pertains in the Parker family that's often seen in a lot of working-class families, black or white: as the husband and father, Russell Parker is ostensibly the head of the family, but the actual work of sustaining the family -- both emotionally and financially -- has long been taken by his wife, the real breadwinner of the household. Parker's haircuts bring in little income, and most of it he gambles on the numbers. Parker has two sons, grown to young manhood but neither of them especially productive: angry Bobby and slow-witted Theophilus. (Would any man actually name one son Bobby and one son Theophilus?)
As the play begins, Parker's wife has recently died ... but the new head of the family (in fact if not officially) is his daughter Adele, who has a job with responsibilities, and who deeply resents that she is carrying the entire family financially. Adele believes that her mother's death was caused by overwork to support her menfolk. In the opening scene, Adele makes it clear that her brothers and her father must get real jobs -- the barber shop doesn't bring in much money -- or else she'll kick them out.
Theophilus has some vague ambitions as an artist, but we see no evidence of real talent. Bobby is a small-time crook. Now the brothers decide that the way to make more money is to expand Bobby's criminal operations by converting the barber shop into a blind tiger (speakeasy) selling 'corn likker' distilled to Theo's recipe. Bobby's petty crime career has been under the protection of a colourful local character with the unlikely street-name Blue Haven. This man is what we would call in Britain a 'spiv': a flashily-dressed dude who makes high money from illegal commerce, but who is never actually seen committing a crime. Parker and his two sons put the speakeasy into operation: Blue Haven receives a cut of the profits in exchange for his protection from police raids or rival criminals.
SPOILERS COMING. It's no surprise that events turn tragic. Theo gets shot, and dies agonisingly on the floor of the barber shop. Bobby disposes of his corpse, just before Parker comes home with some good news, which he eagerly divulges to Adele and Bobby. Then he innocently asks 'Where's Theophilus?'
Ward's splendid performance in the central role is ably buttressed by Rosalind Cash as Adele and by Robert Hooks as the hypnotic cobra-like Blue Haven. Glynn Turman has proved his intelligence in other roles; here, he very convincingly depicts the slow-witted Theophilus, who angrily shouts 'I'm not dumb!' but indicates by his actions that he's a borderline retardate. I was less impressed with the performance of Godfrey Cambridge as Parker's buddy Jenkins. Cambridge was best known as a comedian: here, he seems uncertainly balanced between comic relief and the dramatic tone of the rest of this drama. Lonne Elder's script and dialogue are searingly honest, depicting these African-Americans as real people with genuine failings as well as aspirations. This production's merits are many, its flaws are few, and I'll rate 'Ceremonies in Dark Old Men' 8 out of 10.
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