Philip Brandes Los Angeles Times
Marrying plot intricacies worthy of Jane Austen and the emotional expressiveness of contemporary African American voices, Harriet A. Dickey's "Joleta" at the Stella Adler Theatre proves a gripping, tightly scripted generational saga about a family uncovering dark secrets in its painful history.
As in previous stagings, this revival of the Towne Street Theatre's popular production sports different casts on alternating weekends (most of the actors are veterans of the show). Clear, insightful direction by Nancy Cheryll Davis-Bellamy emphasizes stereotype-free characters, no matter which cast you end up seeing. In addition to its fine ensemble performances, Dickey's play spins a suspenseful yarn.
Sparks fly when a present-day reunion brings four sisters back to their parents' uneasy household, where their gravely ill mother (Michelle Davison) quietly agonizes over her missed opportunities. A bad decision in her youth trapped her in a loveless marriage to an egotistic blowhard (Lou Beatty Jr.). His less glamorous brother (Vincent Isaac), who truly loved her, ended up in prison for murder.
The daughters' long-simmering suspicions about their paternity come to a boil with the homecoming of their paroled uncle. Smoothly crafted flashbacks re-create their mother's tortured confession, in which the fates of the younger incarnations of this triangle (Dalila Brown-Geiger, Trevor Gordon and William L. Johnson) are shaped by the wiles of the uncle's conniving ex-wife, Joleta (Lira Angel).
In the ensuing moral quagmire of fidelity, skin color, work ethics, and passion, pent-up skeletons practically cascade from the closet, but the production's focus on believable, emotionally honest performances keeps melodrama at bay.
Back StageWest April 10, 2002 - Reviewed By Madeleine Shaner
As one of a family of four girls, I can attest to the top-quality, high-level friction that surfaces when all hands are on deck. Battling families come in all shades of angry and all skin tones, the diversity of the latter being strong cause for trouble brewing in the Lyles household in St. Charles, Mo., when the clan gathers to support its mother, Marguerite (Michelle Davison), who is dying from cancer. A flawed history of family passions and buried secrets is resurrected in the face of Mother's mortality.
The impending arrival of Uncle Percy (Sy Richardson), their father's brother, who's just finished serving a jail term for the murder of his wife, is the major cause of dissension among the adult daughters, none of whom are willing to welcome him to their pre-wake. Ambrosia (Eulynda Porter), the eldest, is the least forbearing of their father, Vernon (Ernie King), a passive-aggressive lump of disassociation. The younger daughters, Louise (Patricia Williams), an unimpassioned mother of several kids, Wendolyn (Jacquelyn Houston), a bitter school principal, and Regina (Karen Folkes), a successful model, are still Daddy's girls and not at all sure there isn't some dark family secret that separates them by looks and skin color from one another--whereby hangs this soapy tale.
The kitchen-sink mystery within a generational enigma unfolds slowly, with cutely inserted flashbacks to Marguerite and Percy at 17 (Leslie Miller and Trevor Gordon, respectively), Vernon in his 20s (Rico Anderson), and Marguerite (Nancy Renee) and the eponymous Joleta (Susan McWilliams), a sly little fox, in their 20s and 30s.
Superb performances by all the women and Nancy Cheryll Davis-Bellamy's hands-on, passionate direction stop this slightly overwrought drama from going over the edge into mawkishness. Production values are splendid, reinforced by Nathaniel Bellamy's fine set and lighting, and Joan Francis' 1980s costumes.
Willard Manus, from Theatrescope describes "JOLETA" as "A fascinating study of a contemporary black family's struggle to come to grips with its complex and flawed history, the play looks at the way thwarted love, skin-color consciousness and power struggles have affected each member of the Lyles household. Old passions are reignited and buried secrets are unearthed in the course of this drama which is NOTEWORTHY for its STRONG ENSEMBLE ACTING and SKILLFUL DIRECTION.
R.M. Sydnor from The L.A. Sentinel says: "JOLETA" was one of the bright surprises in the summer LA theater scene...The interplay among the women, who are more than than simply caricatures of African-American women, dazzles and is well acted. - Veronica Thompson & Teressa Taylor as Wendolyn and Ambrosia ignite the stage and William L. Johnson's devilish young Vernon captures our attention whenever he's on stage...Nancy Cheryll Davis-Bellamy's direction deserves high marks.. JOLETA is rewarding theater with plenty of laughs and tears.
The L.A. Weekly and LA Watts Times chime in: A very talented cast makes JOLETA well worth the price of admission ....JOLETA has a charismatic ensemble in Harriet Dickey's suspenseful drama.