Play by Austin resident performed

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A play that’s equal parts prodigal daughter tale and dramatic comedy, Sweet Potato Pie depicts both the bitter and the sweet of raising a family in poverty.

The play was performed Sunday at the Provision Theatre Company to a two-thirds capacity crowd at the 200-seat theatre.

Drawn from the real life experiences of Austin-based author Sandra Corley, Sweet Potato Pie tells the tale of Dorothy (played by Corley herself) and her family – three daughters, a son and a husband — as they struggle financially and spiritually in the fictional Martin Luther King projects in Chicago.

Dorothy earns money to support her family by working tirelessly to make the titular dessert, so that she can sell her signature pies around the neighborhood. Her work ethic and desire for upward mobility rubs off on all of her family.

However, only the children Malik (Malik Martin) and Ja-Ja (Johnetta Smith) use these qualities for good by working multiple jobs and being loyal to their parents.

Daughter Tonya (Tonya Martin) scams Dorothy for money to pay for her books, despite having been dropped out of college for a year. Second daughter Sasha (Kay C) is openly contemptuous of the family’s economic standing, boasting of how she’ll earn riches but never actually developing a plan to achieve them.

Richard (Terrence Brown), the father, is gone multiple days at a time hustling on the streets ostensibly to earn money for his family, but in reality to feed his addictions to alcohol and drugs.

After having swindled local pimp Cat Daddy (Johnny Westmoreland) out of $1,000 during a game of dice, Richard returns home after a three-day gambling and booze binge. Richard immediately dotes his riches upon his daughters, especially Tonya, but quarrels with Dorothy about his absences and neglectful behavior. (She chides him by saying, “God gave us wonderful children, and you don’t even know who they are!”)

Dorothy sends out Sasha to pick up a celebratory soul food dinner. But Sasha, wanting the finer things in life, bets away all of the family’s money in a street card game operated by Cat Daddy.

When Sasha is seduced by Daddy’s riches, he takes her under his wing but his ulterior motives result in Sasha’s descent to a nightmarish rock bottom. Dorothy sets out to rescue her daughter — but doesn’t know where to turn to six months after Sasha’s disappearance.

Sweet Potato Pie is filled with ironic humor, quick-witted banter and a warm sense of affection for its well-acted characters, despite their many flaws.

However, in gaining traction toward some considerable conflicts, Pie’s narrative tissue becomes slack. The comedy in the first act is entertaining, but, as characters, Sasha and Dorothy end up competing with each other to earn the audience’s attention. As a result, the play comes across as unfocused.

Luckily, Pie tightens its narrative and focuses on Sasha’s descent into forced prostitution and drug abuse. Even though Dorothy ends up becoming a minor character in her own story, her desire to forgive her daughter of her sins is noble and universal.

But Pie doesn’t fully develop its most of its character’s arcs, even if those character are deserving of them.

Sasha ultimately escapes Daddy’s grip, but how she ended up getting there isn’t depicted in anyway on stage. Similarly, Richard’s evolution from sinner to devout churchgoer and family man isn’t shown to the audience but merely told to them. (At the very last scene, when Richard shows up to defend Sasha at church from Cat Daddy).

Though it doesn’t thoroughly do enough to examine the dramas of its warmly drawn characters, Sweet Potato Pie is an agreeable, religious-minded good-natured showcase of what happens when an author turns up the volume on a life of quiet desperation. There may be plenty of bitter, but there’s also a well-appreciated dollop of sweet.


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