“Remember that rumor? It just came knocking on my front door.” -Grace Dubose Dunbar
For nearly 20 years a proud tradition of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival has been its bold mission to foster and showcase the work of southern storytellers through its Southern Writers Project. The latest offering born of the Project is yet another gem, further heightening the program’s profile and deservedly earning national acclaim.
Pearl Cleage’s “The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years” is a witty, intriguing comedy decisively worthy of an international tour.
Set ten years in the shadow of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it chronicles the Nacirema Society’s feverish planning to mark its centennial, made more dramatic with the anticipated engagement of its primary member’s granddaughter. But lurking behind the ivy-covered walls of gentility and immaculate reputations are a pair of secretive lovers and a shocking family secret, both of which threaten to engulf the event in scandal and to ruin good names. And yet, though it’s the stuff great knuckle-biting dramas are built upon, we as the audience are laughing with total abandon throughout it all.
A truly unique quality of this play is that it offers the perspective of black high society and an arms-length approach to the struggle for civil rights. Invariably plays set during this period focus on the foot soldier activists on the front lines, sitting in at lunch counters and participating in protest marches. This captures the rarely presented viewpoint of black individuals who, although inexorably linked by race to those in the struggle for freedom, are generally removed from those in the trenches fighting the good fight. The event’s organizers even dismissively refer to activities led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, only expressing concern that such things may disrupt the Nacirema Society’s celebration. But this is assuredly not weighty subject matter in the play. It’s merely a sliver of the setting and does not in any way hinder or make somber the comedic aspects of the story.
Though so much buzz has centered on the inclusion of Jasmine Guy in the cast - as reporter Janet Logan - the shining success of this play rests on a brilliant script, riddled with clever, unanticipated twists and turns, an ensemble of actors who execute as if they‘ve been playing these roles for years, and solid direction by Susan Booth, which laudably keeps the action in line, moving at a rapid clip and takes great care to treat each little comedic nuance with kid gloves, realizing all of its potential.
Guy certainly doesn’t disappoint though. She’s stellar prodding the Society and its members in an attempt to tear back the veil on the group, seemingly posing simple, innocuous questions which nonetheless provoke uproariously humorous responses from Society members as their gasp-worthy secrets are brought to light and ordinarily demure personalities are pushed to the edge.
One of the most amusing and gratifying facets of this play is the interplay between matriarch Grace Dunbar - played by Trezana Beverley, and her granddaughter Gracie - played by Naima Russell. Beverly’s uncanny ability to sprinkle the stage with grandiose arrogance and condescension, clinging desperately to the old ways of the Society, is absolutely hilarious. We find ourselves wrapped up, following her body language and nearly begging for the next funny line. Though we’d think such characteristics would prompt disgust from the audience, Beverly’s delivery is so clever that we find her antics endearing though we would never prize such qualities in our personal lives from those we associate with.
Beverley’s antics, coupled with the youthful, idealistic innocence provided by Russell, is worthy of its own spotlight. This clash between old ways and new ways and generational gaps provide a remarkably funny contrast. Russell’s unbridled personification of youthful exuberance truly lights up the stage leading us to wonder which of the two stars will steal the show.
The ensemble also consists of Chinai Hardy, who is graceful and convincing as Marie Dunbar; Andrea Frye who charms and prompts countless laughs as the slightly flighty Catherine Green; Kevin Daniels as the dashing Bobby Green, undeterred by potentially disappointing his family in the name of love; Tonia Jackson as the cunning outsider seeking a piece of the Dunbar family pie; Karan Kendrick as Lillie Campbell, who weaves her way deftly through the romantic shades of the play with her secret lover and conspires with Gracie to help bring some sanity to it all. And though she may seem insignificant in the background of all the drama and surprises unfolding in this funny romp, don’t ever take your eye off Jessie, played by Neda Spears. She may have the last laugh of all….
The pace in the first act cleverly ticks along, peaking our interest and leaving the audience craving a return from intermission. It’s advisable not to blink in the second act as the action explodes in a whirlwind of laughs as the scheming, secrets and scandal begin to bounce around like a runaway pinball, surprises lurking behind each piece of the palatial set, a feast for the eyes designed by Peter Hicks. Eyes widen, coupled with hearty laughs and we often have to search carefully for a spot to catch our breath.
The conclusion is quite fulfilling. Though the plot rides primarily on humor, we are treated to a flurry of very poignant, personal moments as the play concludes. It’s a testament to Cleage’s ability to spin a somewhat complex yet easily digested tale.
The only gripe I can possibly muster is that due to the effectiveness of the comedic portions of the play, it is sometimes difficult to hear some of the lines due to the lingering applause.
I cannot recall a comedy in ASF history which has provoked such an outpouring of sincere, sustained applause and even cheering. The standing ovation - inarguably very well deserved - must have set a record for an ASF performance. It’s even more satisfying to know that a production so well-received is home-grown, based in Montgomery, workshopped at ASF and debuted for the world in the Capital City. As the production moves to Atlanta and beyond, I feel confident it will land - and land with authority - on Broadway. The rest of the world most assuredly deserves to see this.
The world premiere of “The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First 100 Years” by Pearl Cleage continues its run at ASF through October 10 and will then travel to Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre to open Oct. 20. Tickets can be purchased online from ASF for the remaining Montgomery dates, or by calling 1-800-4ASF.
About the author: Joseph O. Patton is the editor-in-chief and founder of the Capital City Free Press. He is a former news editor for the Coosa County News, lead reporter for the Montgomery Independent and editor-in-chief of the AUMnibus, the student newspaper of Auburn-Montgomery. Patton is also the creator of and writer for the satirical news radio segment "Goat Hill Gossip," which previously aired on WAUD in Auburn, Alabama and has appeared on several Central Alabama radio programs as a political analyst.
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