Theater Review - Your mother

MooreOliphant Company launches with Mother Wit

There’s an old saying that goes, “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Sherry J. Williams’ new play Mother Wit encompasses a stressful day in the life of Valerie Shropshire (Carol Mitchell-Leon) as she struggles to balance the responsibilities of raising three children with the demands of being a corporate executive.

Mother Wit is itself the first “child” of The MooreOliphant Company, which Williams founded to produce plays by herself and other ethnic writers. Opening July 13 at Sci-Trek’s 350-seat Intel Exhibit Hall, Mother Wit shows how one African-American woman applies tough love and earthy humor to parenting while she navigates the shark-infested waters of corporate America.

Mother Wit’s script eavesdrops on what Valerie says over a single day as she doles out advice, vents about her job and rides herd over her family. She touches on many serious issues and makes funny digressions, like the theory that civilization was “all caused by a woman trying to get her man to stop being so trifling.”

Williams points out that only recently have African-American women faced the having-it-all balancing act of domestic responsibilities and leadership roles in big business. “I wanted to capture that woman because though you see a lot about her in the media, you don’t get a full analysis of her life,” says Williams.

Mitchell-Leon has the only speaking part, but Mother Wit is not a traditional monologue play. In director Brenda Porter’s staging, the cast includes four actors in leotards with their faces covered, who represent not only the people Valerie addresses, but the more abstract forces she battles. “It gives the impression that even when this woman’s alone, she’s never really alone,” Mitchell-Leon says.

Mitchell-Leon consistently gives rich, impressive performances of strong female roles, notably in such period pieces as the Alliance’s The Amen Corner and PushPush Theater’s The Glass Menagerie. But she’s never played a contemporary corporate woman before now. “The play is unique in how it looks at modern women who do so much, but women have always been expected to multi-task,” says Mitchell-Leon. “My dilemma is to find out what makes this one different from the women of another era, or another arena.”

Williams, herself a mother of two and a vice president at management consulting firm D.J. Miller & Associates, draws some of Mother Wit’s anecdotes from her own experience, but she acknowledges that she has it easier than her character. “I work with my husband at D.J. Miller, so we can keep family as a priority. How women in large corporations do it when they don’t have that flexibility, I have no idea.”

Williams likes the way Mother Wit gives her license to lecture the audience. “That’s what moms do. In other plays, you get the issues through the characters’ conflicts, but here, we can be more direct. Only mom can get away with it — because it doesn’t feel like a lecture. She’s funny the way moms are funny.”

Williams plans to produce additional socially conscious, politically motivated works in the future, and hopes to stage her play Colors of a Painting in January. “By no means do I think I’m the only playwright out there,” she says. “I want to find new talent in the African-American community and other ethnic communities.”