Sunday, May 4, 2008

Not "Waiting To Be Invited"

"Waiting to be Invited," produced by the African American Repertory Theatre, closed recently at Pine Camp Community Center. Richmond Shakespeare Artistic Director Grant Mudge saw the show on its closing weekend.


I can think of no more important story for African American Repertory Theatre (AART) to be producing right now than “Waiting To Be Invited.”

As we gear up for the summertime Richmond Shakespeare Festival with classes and rehearsals (the first performance is June 12!), I thought it an appropriate moment to pause---and write about a show I've seen recently. Further, as our first season as a resident company in the new Richmond CenterStage is only 17 months away, it seemed an ideal time.



Right here in Richmond----On February 22 of 1960, some 35 Virginia Union and Union Theological Seminary students staged a sit-in at the lunch counter inside Thalheimer’s department store. They were subjected to every repulsive slur you can imagine, then hauled out into the winter streets to waiting paddy wagons and jail.

It is with no small degree of import, then, that not quite sixty years later, in 2009, one of the primary resident companies in this same building will be a black theatre company, the African American Repertory Theatre. (AART) When Richmond CenterStage opens in the fall of that year, AART will be there.

For me, nothing could serve more fittingly as a local beacon of hope for the ongoing challenges of human interaction. Imagine: within the very building where blacks were prohibited from enjoying freedoms as simple as ordering lunch, where they could not try on clothes in fitting rooms because of the color of their skin, a theatre company will become resident for the express purpose of sharing the stories of these black Americans.

There was a little flak recently on David Timberline’s RichmondVaTheater blog regarding AART. It was nicely quelled by this post (you'll have to scroll down a little) from Barksdale/Theatre IV Artistic Director Bruce Miller, but the kerfuffle was unfortunate, as all those involved are friendly supporters of theatre in town. I want to add my thanks to Bruce for his letter, and not just because it was very flattering to be put in that illustrious company. He chose just the right moment to comment. If you’re interested in Richmond theatre, I encourage you to give it a read.

The controversy centered on the quality of AART shows. Now, I’ve seen several of the company's offerings dating back to one of their earlier spaces, a storefront theatre on Broad Street; I see the questioning perspective. In contrast however, I'd like to applaud this small and energetic company as brothers in a struggle to create art. Their performances have never failed to move me. In addition to the show I saw just a few weeks ago, I remember a deeply moving production several years ago of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.

In the full-disclosure department: I've been so impressed with Derome that Richmond Shakespeare is exploring collaborative productions with AART, especially as both organizations prepare to be sibling resident companies in Richmond CenterStage. We're really looking forward to working together.

AART's most recent production was illustrative of where the company finds itself, a place most theatre practitioners have been, (RS included) caught between inspiration and means. Their “quality” should be assessed by the strength of story, emotion, love, and power they bring to the stage, and on these grounds, they are fired up and raring to go.


* * *

Waiting To Be Invited
then, by S.M. Shephard-Massat, (A Helen Hayes Award-winner in 2006 for her play Starving) shows promise, but it’s an admittedly problematic script. The first act is split between doll factory (in an employee's locker room) and a city bus. Three women (Diana Carver, Shaundra Patterson and Sharalyn Bailey, joined later by Kesha Afrika Oliver in a powerhouse performance) prepare to exercise their newfound civil rights to eat in a downtown lunch counter restaurant. It's 1964, and violence toward individuals who made these efforts was not uncommon. Arrests were still expected, despite the Civil and Voting Rights acts.

The play’s second act struggles to keep the action going. As each character seems primed to take the lead into the store, they fail and fall back. One clunky plot device in particular feels like a first-time playwright's mistake: despite having set this afternoon for her task, one of the ladies suddenly misses her departing bus. Wouldn’t she have missed it had she been inside eating?

Perhaps it was meant to be indicative of the character’s state of mind, but this script moment felt like the author artificially creating material to avoid writing the actual sit-in. This would be the best grist for the drama mill, but the playwright stays outside on the curb. We are meant to see that the moment of entrance, of decision late in the play, defying the play’s title—as its resolution. But I still wanted to see the scene inside.

The actors mime some but not all of their surroundings, which is odd. I've always struggled with theatre that mimes some items but not others; to me it should be all, nothing, or reveal some clear reason for combining. One would think Derome Scott-Smith's carefully constructed set would preclude the need for miming, say, overhead hanging handholds, wiping invisible glass windshields, or manipulating a missing gearshift. Why have a steering wheel but mime the gearshift?

More, I wondered why we needed the bus at all; its narrow "aisle" forced more than a few moments of audience-staring-at-posteriors. Less than flattering. The actors dealt with it well; so too did they very well with the moment of a white passenger requesting a seat in the front of the bus, and later learning of the mission of the women aboard. (It’s a nice cameo by Lelia Pendleton, who stage managed Richmond Shakespeare’s Death and the Maiden in 1997)

In fact, the performances are strong enough that a few chairs lined up onstage would have sufficed. Toney Cobb, as bus driver Palmeroy exhibits his trademark affability and is an absolute delight to watch. He keeps the pace sparkling, and brings a welcome consistency; we miss him in act two. In a lovely program note, Cobb dedicates the performance to his late father, a DC Metro bus driver who retired in 1988.

Margarette Joyner’s costumes nicely evoke 1964; the ladies’ dresses are particularly well-conceived, all in white--including white hats, white pocketbooks, white shoes and white shopping bags. Joyner’s designs draw stark attention to issues far more complex hue. It’s a great choice.

It’s interesting to note that Shephard-Massat chose 1964, the year of Congress’ passage of the Civil Rights Act (and the Voting Rights Act)---she seems to conflate it with several Supreme Court decisions---rather than 1960, when eating at whites-only establishments was still prohibited by law. The much more famous Atlanta (and Greensboro and Richmond) sit-ins took place in 1960. The decision these ladies make is after they have a legal right to go, but before they had been "invited." In fact, when it finally comes, the climactic decision is an incredibly powerful moment. Standing centerstage as Louise, Sharalyn Bailey allows her shrill, abrasive fun defenses to subside, and describes a moment when police set german shepherd dogs against her young children. Her stillness was incredibly effective; she wasn’t far from tears. The best kind of could-hear-the-proverbial-pin-drop moment. She knew---and finally, so too did these women know---that they had to walk into that department store to order lunch.

As they exit the stage, they began to speak in unison:
The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green Pastures, he leadeth me
beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of
righteousness for his name's sake,

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me….
An army of four, dressed in white, these women stepped into the kind of change that helped a nation to more fully begin to right its wrongs. It was a wonderful ending, and the audience was deeply moved.

Shepard-Massat changed the name of the department store in which her characters are trying to eat, likely because even as the old "Rich's" no longer exists, its sale to Macy's led to a dual name, "Rich's-Macy's" and was branded that way as late as 2005. She changes “Rich’s” (the actual store in which Atlanta sit-ins took place) to “Marsh’s,” perhaps this also serves to remind the audience that the women she depicts were not figures of history but representatives thereof. Whatever the reason, Waiting To Be Invited finished powerfully.

Subsequent laws prohibiting such demonstrations included steep fines and lengthier jail sentences. But activists only continued their campaign, until retailers relented, laws were changed, and America took at step closer to becoming a free society.

How fitting then, that AART continues that story now, as we envision new life for an old building, new art for its stages, and the promise of new hope born out of the magic of story.

I’m really glad they did not “wait to be invited.”

1 comment:

Mr. Grant Mudge said...

Follow up: It looks like there was much activity at the site in the days leading up to the 22nd. On Feb 20 and 21, there were apparently protests and other sit-in's.

The primary meeting to re-dedicate the site was on February 21, 2001. In a meeting today, the similarity in dates hit me like a ton of bricks.