Excellent acting drives the ‘New Sophisticates’ to an unexpected stage

As the first glimmer of hope surfaced during Obama’s unlikely 2008 campaign, a young man listens intently to the eloquent presidential candidate on commercial radio. An older man walks in, looks around, and asks the youngster what he thinks of Obama’s chances. It will never happen, replies the young man. The older man chuckles sarcastically, “Good to know what the younger generation thinks.”

The stage is set. Over the next 90 minutes, the forces of change against stasis, hope thwarted by fear and loyalty in the fight against betrayal, unfold in a dusty old antique and repair shop, the setting of the new play by Keith Powell, New sophisticated.

Lloyd Ekpe as Satcher and Lisa Hill-Corley as Avery in “Sophisticated New Ones”. Photo by David Lewis.

As part of its 13th season, Unexpected Stage Company staged this production, ably directed by Dawn Thomas Reidy, in the intimate Fireside Room of the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

DeJeanette Horne as H and Lisa Hill-Corley as Avery in “Sophisticated New Ones”. Photo by David Lewis.

You couldn’t ask for a better place. The wood-panelled room blends seamlessly with the mix of treasures and tokens in the shop. Set designer Kristen Jepperson must have had fun hoarding and staging this wonderful mess. Arrive early if you can – just to feast your eyes on the jumble of old chairs, beaded lamps, stiff suitcases, bric-a-brac, old televisions (remember when they were actually furniture?) and framed objects. There’s no doubt that something you see will stir up a memory or two.

The Philadelphia area store is owned by Avery and his son Satcher. It’s one of the first black-owned businesses in the area, passed down through Avery’s estranged husband and his ancestors. Over time, the unprofitable business became both a burden and a comfort to mother and son, providing them with routine, identity, and a practical escape from a changing world. With one notable exception, Avery has no love for merchandise. Nevertheless, she keeps a close eye on the finances and knows that the business is in serious trouble. Satcher doesn’t want to hear about profit and loss, but he’s a skilled restorer and has a genuine curiosity about old stuff.

The fragility of the couple’s world begins to crack when H, an older man, walks into the store. Attracted to Avery, whom he glimpses as he passes the store on his way to his job as a security guard at the public library, H brings a chair to be repaired. The unexpected provenance of the chair and its place in H’s family history become the fulcrum on which the piece evolves.

Three excellent performances bring this drama to life. Lisa Hill-Corley’s world-weariness is tinged with a lingering bitterness about the husband who abandoned her. Yet Hill-Corley expertly reveals Avery’s long-buried sensuality, fierce mothering and unwavering practicality. We watch as her emotional doors open, allowing her to glimpse the hope and change simmering throughout the play.

Lloyd Ekpe’s Satcher shows the scars of his father’s abandonment. He polishes and protects inventory like it’s family. Skeptical of progress and fearful of change, he hesitates to celebrate Obama’s victory. With the president-elect’s sensational speech on election night in the background, Satcher still doubts the first black president will ever take office.

The agile and elegant DeJeanette Horne as H brings energy and fun to her resolute pursuit of Avery. He woos her with a bottle of wine and a plate of lobster salad perched on the boutique’s ultra-delicate tea tables as the pair settle into comical little velvet chairs for a charming first date. We root for H as soon as he goes on stage.

DeJeanette Horne as H and Lloyd Ekpe as Satcher in “Sophisticated New Ones”. Photo by David Lewis.

Eventually, H will make much needed changes in the lives of Avery and his son. It’s not without a cost, however, both to the couple and to the achingly sad company they’ve kept on life support for so long. To his credit, Powell doesn’t provide easy answers. Just like the iconic Barack Obama Hope poster stuck to the wall of the store seemed to signal a new era, we now know that was not the case. There are many bumps and bruises in the life of a country, or a family. We wish them good luck.

Duration: 90 minutes without intermission.

New sophisticated plays through July 3, 2022, presented by Unexpected Stage Company performing in the Fireside Room of the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation Building, 6301 River Road, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($12.50 to $45), call 301-337-8290 or go online.

A virtual performance ($25) is also available through July 17, 2022.

The New sophisticated the program is online here.

COVID Safety: Proof of full COVID-19 vaccination is required to attend in-person performances. All spectators must wear a mask during the performance. The health and safety policy in the event of an unforeseen scene is here.

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