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Gusto and unpretentiousness from the Negro Ensemble Company

Henrietta Play by Karen Jones-Meadows. Directed by Samuel P. Barton. Henrietta sits astride a box in front of a dilapidated Harlem brownstone, heckling passers-by. ``I don't talk to nobody that listens,'' she proclaims cheerfully. But Henrietta definitely wants to be heard. She is a bag lady with a difference. She blows up small paper bags and explodes them to punctuate her fusillades of words. Add to the foregoing that Henrietta is played with gusto and a gambit of emotions by the wonderful Frances Foster and you will get the general impression of the unpretentious new comedy being presented by the Negro Ensemble Company at Theatre Four.

Karen Jones-Meadows has written ``Henrietta'' with genuine affection for her scruffy monologuist. Henrietta's humor and irrepressible audacity are almost always a match for the dark demons that might drive her across the line that distinguishes harmless eccentricity from a more seriously disturbed mental state. ``I'm not crazy,'' Henrietta tells her new friend Sheleeah, ``just out of my mind.'' To Henrietta, the troubles she's seen eminently qualify her to deal with the problems of the world. ``That's what I'm here for,'' she informs the skeptical Sheleeah (Elain Graham).

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Having established the dimensions for her character portrait (with subordinate figures), the playwright unfolds a slender tale of a fragile relationship. After a few rounds of verbal hostilities, Henrietta and Sheleeah become friends. Admitted to Henrietta's riotously cluttered tenement room, Sheleeah learns about the men she married and the children she lost or from whom she has been estranged. Henrietta's account of a checkered past occasionally gives way to a momentary outburst of desperate inner rage.

``Henrietta'' is in fact a study of loneliness and the human need for interdependent relationships. As the relationship between the two women develops, Henrietta assumes the role of surrogate mother and even begins imagining that Sheleeah is her daughter. For her part, the younger woman sees financial possibilities in Henrietta's fruit-salad concoction and wants to move her out of her shabby quarters. The latter project is furiously opposed by Henrietta's indulgent landlord-neighbor (William Jay). The confrontation ends predictably.

With Miss Foster to fill out all the dimensions of the central character, her depths as well as her surfaces, ``Henrietta'' comes off best as a beguiling and touching stage portrait. Miss Graham's crisp Sheleeah and Mr. Jay's bewildered landlord contribute to the development of what becomes a three-way relationship. The author's problem emerges in the development itself, the increasing sense of contrivance in the attempts to intensify the dramatic situation.

Samuel P. Barton's staging faithfully responds to the common humanity and the human comedy of the extending vignettes. Llewellyn Harrison's setting handily encompasses the three principal sectors of action. The production was lighted by Sylvester N. Weaver and costumed by Karen Perry. The tender, incidental tones of ``Sometimes I feel like a motherless child . . .'' underscore the feeling of this poignant stage miniature.

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