Guess who’s coming to dinner?

“The Diva Daughters DuPree” portrays the complexities of African-American families.

by Greg Corradini

One month is not enough. In February, our nation honors black contributions to culture and history. The underlying assumption is that a month of activities and platitudes, necessarily dwarfed by the wealth of contributions blacks have made to U.S. culture and society, is a solution to the systemic racism that still exists. It’s not.

The Penumbra Theatre’s new production “The Diva Daughters DuPree” takes on one of the biggest problems that blacks, and minorities at large, still face – their misrepresentation in media and culture.

Lou Bellamy has been fighting for the honest representation of black perspectives in the theater for more than 28 years. In 1976, Bellamy, a University theater professor and St. Paul native, used grant money to found the Penumbra Theatre. Now a professional black theater, Penumbra openly addresses black issues year round.

“The Twin Cities needed, at least from my perspective, someone to look at complicated portrayals of African-Americans rather than the one-dimensional characters I was asked to play,” Bellamy said.

“The Diva Daughters DuPree,” written by Kim Yvonne Euell, pivots around three black sisters’ unexpected arrival at their late parents’ house. As it turns out, the house is more than just a place to live. Slowly, it transforms into a symbol of each DuPree sister’s struggle to come to terms with her own identity. Euell uses this set up as a dramatic platform to construct a story of racial, gender and class politics.

The oldest sister, Billie (Erica Dennis), a model of consumerism, is everything that her younger sister Sarah (Thomasina Petrus), a black history professor just denied tenure, despises. Billie drives a navy blue Mercedes and takes pride in a false family history that supposedly links the DuPree ancestry with the Underground Railroad.

“Yes,” Billie says. “We have a lot of achievers in our family. And so far as we know, there’s never been anyone in our family who’s been on welfare or in jail.”

One of Sarah’s biggest points of contention with Billie revolves around her marriage to an insipid white man referred to as “Surfer Dude.”

At dinner, Sarah refuses to eat a veal cutlet Billie has prepared for her on the grounds that veal constitutes red meat. Billie argues that veal is in fact white meat and then provokes Sarah to the point of bursting. Sarah shrewdly tells the table, “No red meat. No white meat,” and walks out.

In the very next scene Uri (Dylan Fresco), Abbey’s (Kimberly Morgan) Israeli husband, is pacing frantically around the bedroom. The problem, Uri tells Abbey, is that “you have racism in your family.” Abbey flippantly replies, “We’re Americans. I don’t think what Sarah said was racist, I think that’s called umm, umm cultural nationalism.”

Euell’s choice to deal with heavy issues comically does not prevent her characters from taking on a dramatic depth and fuller personality.

The fair-skinned Sarah, an activist in all areas of her life, aims to marry a black person and retain the family’s heritage. When her beefy potential mate does show up, Sarah uses Spencer’s (Rob Manning) color and brawn to antagonize Billie’s conformity and criticize her interracial marriage.

The real subtlety of Euell’s story becomes apparent in these moments, when Sarah’s depth and inconsistencies are laid bare. Bellamy has worked with Euell on numerous occasions, and he enjoyed this script because of such rich characters.

“I am interested in complex portrayals of African-Americans,” Bellamy said. “Those you don’t get. You get these little snapshots and you think that’s all (African-Americans) are. Anything that complicates that ethos and presents it in a respectful manner I love, this piece does that.”