Ekundayo Bandele must be doing something right. By the time you read this review, it may be impossible to buy tickets for the Hattiloo Theatre's revival of his holiday drama If Scrooge Was a Brother. That's great news for the newly relocated company. The less great news is that Bandele's compelling riff on the Charles Dickens classic — a Carol he's been rewriting every few years since sometime in the previous century — still feels incomplete. This newest version comes on strong in the beginning, breaking from worn-out source material to plant Scrooge and his dutiful employee Bob Cratchit in a decidedly African-American context. The play bogs down when the season's inescapable ghosts show up to walk Bandele's Eb Scroo — a shady real estate broker besieged by lawsuits and condemned on the nightly news — through the usual scenes from his past, present, and future. The play ends in uncertainty as Scroo chooses to attend church with the people he's evicted from their homes instead of having an annual Christmas breakfast at the country club he's not allowed to join. Performances are uneven but heartfelt, and patient audiences will be rewarded with a few genuine laughs and some food for thought.
Bandele likes his Christmas shows dark. He has also written and staged Forget Me Not Christmas, a reworking of Sophocles' Antigone, set in the poorest place imaginable. The new Scrooge/Brother isn't as bleak as all that, but it's so much more serious and austere than the usual candy-coated extravaganza.
The story goes something like this: Lacking a strong father figure of his own, old Scroo emulates his real estate mentor "Boss Marley" and entertains the old white man with racist jokes. Scroo sees himself as being special. His opportunities are evidence that he's better than his family and friends from the old neighborhood. When his sister works herself to death trying to give her son a good Christmas, Scroo refuses to take custody of his nephew Fred, who eventually grows up to be a hustler with a heart of gold but will become a ghost-like junkie if the future isn't altered. When Boss Marley dies, Eb Scroo assumes control of his shady predatory lending business that is more or less designed to take advantage of poor African Americans.
Bandele's Yuletide vision is nearly Brechtian, challenging the corrosive dystopian myth of meritocracy, referencing current events like the shooting of Michael Brown and juxtaposing a cartoon vision of American redlining with holiday standards like "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and "Santa Baby."
This new Scrooge boasts some genuinely transformative moments when Bandele breaks free of Dickens' gravity long enough to create something almost wholly original. Even the ghosts, seen here as a maid (Christmas Past), a butler (Christmas Present), and a petulant child (Christmas Future) are filled with promise. Only Christmas Future, with its clear reference to the usual lip service regarding children, really breaks new ground.
There are a few key things missing from Bandele's interpretation of A Christmas Carol. The "milk of human kindness" may show up in the form of a bottle, but it doesn't bring happiness. Also, there is no equivalent to the moment when Dickens' miser decides that mankind really is his business.
This new version ends with an admittedly guilty man walking into church, where he's greeted as a prodigal son. But there's no real assurance that his heart has changed and no sense at all as to what a transformed Eb Scroo might do to atone for his past. The audience is left to decide for themselves whether they've witnessed a terrified con artist's opportunistic rush to the altar or an opportunity for real change and healing. It's an interesting choice, but one that doesn't transition easily into the upbeat, feel-good curtain call.
There's something else missing here, too: evidence of African Americans who aren't either predators or victims.
Bandele, who wrote, produced, and directed, gets top-notch performances from James Cook and Stephen L. Dowdy as nephew Fred and Bob Cratchit, and Michael Adrian Davis makes an effective, business-like Scrooge. Elle Spikner gives a bracing performance as the Ghost of Christmas Future, but the evening's best moments belong to Tadavion Jones whose only real objective in the show is to go onstage and be a kid.