The world premier of Atlanta based playwright Pearl Cleage's "The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of your Presence at a Celebration of their First One Hundred Years" is taking the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's main stage by storm, garnering well-earned laughs and spontaneous standing ovations in a limited run before moving to its co-producing company, the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.
And what a perfect way to begin ASF's "25th Anniversary Season" -- in Montgomery, that is, after its move from Anniston.
Set in Montgomery in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Ms. Cleage's insightful comedy surprises with its many complications of plot and character, and its sensitive depiction of family relationships & secrets, exposing a side of the African-American culture of the period that is generally ignored by the history books: a side that needs to be told. -- Not everyone, after all, was as obsessed with the Movement as some chronicles suggest; though Civil Rights could not be ignored and is not ignored in Ms. Cleage's play, people continued to go to school, worked, and socialized. Life went on.
Depicted in "Nacirema..." are the affluent African-American Montgomerians whose social stature is securely unquestioned within their own ranks, but whose assurance translates to perceived arrogance and exclusivity by less fortunate Blacks.
Preparing for the Nacirema Society's debutante cotillion, young & romantic Gracie Dunbar [Naima Carter Russell] is subjected to her implacable widowed grandmother's constant reminders of the propriety expected of her as a representative of the group. In the person of Trezana Beverley, grandmother Grace Dubose Dunbar is a force to be reckoned with, the doyenne of the Nacirema who reveres and upholds its traditions, and whose word is law. She has all the marks of worldly success: family money and social position, an opulent mansion, servants, fine clothing, impeccable manners & precise speech, and a social set who rarely if ever emerge from their insular world.
Gracie's life has been planned for her, from following family traditions by attending Fisk University to marrying Bobby Green [Kevin Alan Daniels], the son of Grace's best friend, Catherine Adams Green [Andrea Frye]. But Gracie is a talented and serious writer who has been accepted at Barnard College in New York, and though she has grown up with Bobby, for her he is merely a friend; and while her mother Marie Dunbar [Chinai J. Hardy] is sympathetic, she is caught in the middle.
And there are other complications, first in the person of Alpha Campbell Jackson [Tonia Jackson], the daughter of a former maid in the Dunbar household who invents a scheme to extort money from the Dunbars to pay for her own daughter Lillie's [Karan Kendrick] education by threatening to reveal a family secret, and whose presence in the Dunbar's house pits divergent social classes against one another.
Secondly, the arrival of New York Times journalist Janet Logan [Jasmine Guy] has been planned to promote a positive image of the Nacirema, and to "correct" a "false" image published about them in a previous article. Well-intentioned though she may be, and though everyone treats her with excessive politeness, Janet's search for concrete details she can report are thwarted by Grace's and Catherine's obsessive attention to the upcoming cotillion, and their protection of the family's reputation.
Played out on Peter Hicks's staggeringly lavish and spacious set, and complimented by Susan Mickey's fabulous period-detailed costumes that enhance every character, "Nacirema" engages audiences for its full two and a half hours. Director Susan Booth guides her ensemble cast through the assorted plot contrivances and complications with apparent ease, making each moment believable by respecting Ms. Cleage's brilliant dialogue and intricate plotting of events. So many details of each character's lives and personalities are contained in the script, that each emerges as a complete and recognizable individual. Even the maid Jessie Roberts [Neda Spears], a role of opening doors, taking and giving back coats, and carrying props, is a fully developed person who intuits every move of other characters, and whose devotion to the family's honor is slyly manouvered at the end.
The laughs come a mile a minute in "Nacirema", mostly due to Ms. Cleage's character driven lines and the ensemble actors' timing and credibility, though occasional over-the-top interpretations and melodramatic gestures threaten to de-rail the text.
These are people we know, and their concern for doing what is right and good in spite of obstacles is worth celebrating. The love of family and the ability to forgive the sins of the past are lessons from which we can all benefit...So, welcome back to writing for the stage, Pearl Cleage! You have made us laugh, you have made us think, you have made us feel.