A film as flawed, but as arguably compelling as 1959’s “Imitation of Life” deserves a much more scathing and nuanced take-down than it ever inspired during its original run. It’s a melodrama with the utmost fit-pitching, gown-wearing, swooning and sobbing, but at the same time, it attempts and fails to say anything eloquent about racism in America.
The film offers up broad character stereotypes, easy for white audiences in the late ’50s to swallow; namely, wealthy white women who are inexplicably benevolent to those in need, and saintly, subservient black women. It also preaches the unfortunate messages that career women will fail to love their families sufficiently, and that questioning/subverting racist practices that keep you oppressed will just hurt you and everyone you love. It was Oscar nominated, too. Yikes.
With Hell in a Handbag’s parody production “L’Imitation of Life,” author Ricky Graham and director Stevie Love have one mission: to subvert outdated character stereotypes, and inject some truths that stars Lana Turner and Sandra Dee were definitely not ready to hear in their era.
This campy re-imagining follows two single mothers as they struggle to raise their daughters. Annie Johnson (Robert Williams) is an African-American mother who has been turned out of her home with her light-skinned daughter, Sara Jane (Ashley J. Hicks). She meets Lana Turner (Ed Jones, the production opts to skip the movie character name in Turner’s case), a widow, and struggling actress with a daughter of her own, Suzie (Katherine Bellantone). The four successfully cohabitate, with Lana acting as breadwinner, and Annie as maid and caretaker for both daughters. Trouble comes as Lana achieves stardom, and the girls enter their teens. Lana’s daughter Suzie, for instance, falls for her mother’s boy-toy, Steve Martin; no, not that Steve Martin (Chazie Bly). Sara Jane struggles hardest with daily reminders of how the other half lives, and wants to disown her mother and take every advantage afforded her when passing as white.
The cast brings such weirdness and passion to each moment, and this production has done scads of extra credit homework, leaking in some true Hollywood gossip for those who have done their research. Ed Jones is a bombastic, drunken, selfish, horny clotheshorse as this production’s Lana Turner, and is so busy dishing out double entendres, she doesn’t notice her supporting cast as they gleefully steal the show.
Robert Williams is the ultimate straight-woman and perfect foil to Lana as Annie Johnson. While Lana is allowed to insult and sexually frustrate anyone in her path, Annie answers only with perfect decorum, demonstrating the strange lunacy she must operate under, but never, ever comment on. She’s the only person in the household with the magic capacity to answer a phone, open a door, or fry up some coffee, as she so often offers to do.
Rounding out the cast are Katherine Bellantone as the adorable, but definitely psychotic teen Suzie, who’s just as oblivious to her own privilege as her mother (“Remember when my mama cried after those boys were killed in Mississippi?” “Not really.”). And because I have so much appreciation for the extra layers of complexity she heaps onto the already complex Sara Jane, I am a huge fan of Ashley J. Hicks. In perfect moments of hilarity, Hicks builds a three-dimensional woman in a two-dimensional world, all while delivering the perfect Charlie Brown, single-note sob.
Director Stevie Love sums up this production as Handbag’s effort to strap on a pair of 5-inch heels and hold a fun-house mirror to our culture and reflect all attitudes in art, but this show does more than that. It’s strange to think of a comedy like “L’Imitation of Life” inspiring powerful emotions, but it does. When Sara Jane delivers a knockout worthy of Mortal Kombat to an angry bigot, it’s humorous and cathartic all at once. Also, as Annie and Sarah Jane negotiate the last time they will see each other, you may find yourself as emotional in the moment as they are.
DICE RATING: d10 — Worth Going To
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Bring a gown or three for this woke camp showdown.
Show: L’Imitation of Life
Company: Hell In a Handbag Productions
Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont Ave)