Growing up I always had an interest in theater and was involved with drama clubs, but my eager auditions (some at which I actually had to sing a song-terrifying) always resulted in the drama teacher assuaging me with no-line dance roles. I did not do much better in college theater classes and accepted that dance and writing would be my most apt modes of self-expression but I still enjoy catching plays when I can. I had the luck this summer to catch two events in one week. These two very different productions both looked at issues of race, class, and love in the mid twentieth century South.
Held by the Robey Theater Company and directed by Jasmine Guy, Pearl Cleage’s recent play, “The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First Hundred Years” was actually a public reading, with actors in their own regular clothes in a plain blackbox theater at the Los Angeles Theater Company downtown. The reading of “Nacirema” (American spelled backwards) gave me a deeper and richer appreciation for the craft of acting. With no costumes or extra glitter the actors took us deep into cultured and little-known world of the Black Bourgeoisie in 1960s Montgomery, Alabama. Following Grace Dunbar, a cold matriarch who schemes to pull off a successful Centennial debutante ball while sheltering family secrets, this hilarious comedy of manners probes questions of class, color, and love. The civil rights battle that was raging at the time is background to the lives of the Black upper-crust in the play, reflecting that all of us were not directly involved in the movement or perceived ourselves as having the same stakes. A mostly female cast portrays three generations of strong-willed women: upper-crust matriarchs, an ambitious reporter coolly and sharply played by Jasmine guy, and young students who prioritize their own passions and dreams over the old mold of wives and society mistresses. The struggle of Grace Dunbar to rehabilitate the image of the Nacirema society that she feels has been maligned by reporter Janet Logan reflects elements of all of the reading I have been doing this summer on 19 century US Black women and their efforts to “uplift” Negro womanhood. The play carried texture, meaning, and great humor. I laughed as hard as I ever have at a Boondocks episode, without ever wanting to plug my ears.
Ironically, I enjoyed the no-frills reading of “The Nacirema Society” more than the elaborate production of “Memphis” I saw at Pantages the same week. Don't get me wrong, this Tony award-winning musical about a white disc jockey and Black blues singer in 1950s Memphis was wonderfully done. I enjoyed the story, the well-developed characters, and the creative uses of multimedia. I was prepared not to like it when I read the synopsis; I thought it would be another example of the story of Black people made valuable and visible by the medium of a white person's narrative or an idealistic, romantic portrayal of interracial love. But it proved to be much more complex. The story of Dewey Phillips, an illiterate, charming, never-do-good who fell in love with both Black music and an ambitious, spirited blues singer was actually touching. Rather than gloss over the racial issues of the setting the play vividly visualized the tragic implications of these characters’ attempt to be together. I found the music not especially memorable, but the singers performances powerful nevertheless. I liked it, but it is interesting how something that has gotten so much more money, exposure, and attention could have less of an impact on me than a simple reading. It made me realize that there are so many smaller, lesser known projects that deserve our attention and support. As people in general, and Black people in particular, we tend to get on the bandwagon with the big things but miss the hidden treasures.
The Robey Theater was raising funds to possibly put on “Nacirema” as a full-scale production. To support their efforts and check out other events, visit http://www.robeytheatrecompany.com/home.php.