Monday, February 7, 2011

ASF: "The Flag Maker of Market Street"

To mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival commissioned through the Southern Writers' Project two companion-plays by writers with Alabama connections to be set in Montgomery in the 1860s. The first of these world premieres, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's masterfully provocative The Flag Maker of Market Street, opened on Sunday, challenging audiences to come to terms with the myths and dilemmas that revolve around the South both then and now.

In its two hours, audiences are transported back to just before the Civil War, when secession from the Federal Union caused friction within families and between friends who had divided sympathies, when the economy of the South was at risk, and when the institution of slavery was being threatened -- a whole culture was in tumult -- a time, like today, when entitled people instilled fear in the common man through intimidation and twisting facts, when fine manners disguised the brutality underneath, and when choosing convenience over what is right often ruled the day.

Ms. Wilder (the author of the prize-winning Gee's Bend that also premiered at ASF), has a gift for writing dialogue that drives her plots and distinguishes her characters & their conflicts so well that they come to life as authentic to time & place while telling compelling human stories.

Basing her characters on actual Montgomerians of the period, though admittedly not attempting to be historically accurate in all its details, the playwright sets her play in the Dry Goods Store of George Cowles [Jack Koenig], a Unionist who owned slaves and who had ordered 200 sewing machines whose sales he thought would make him rich. His friend William Bibb [Brian Wallace], a fiery big-talker Union sympathizer, believes that Cowles should refuse to make a Confederate flag when he is asked to do so by Jefferson Davis. But Cowles enlists his newly-purchased slave Mae [Nikki E. Walker] to sew it. Lydia Frost [Adria Vitlar], a prominent local socialite with impeccable manners & charm, buys a machine and agrees to take sewing lessons, but keeps putting it off as she gets caught up in the festivities surrounding Davis's innaugural, and is thoroughly unaware of her tunnel-vision in support of the Confederacy or of her own duplicity in her treatment of people, especially slaves.

From the start, it is clear where the playwright's sympathies lie. In two monologues -- the first from Cowles who bemoans the economic divide between the haves and have nots, and who sees the impending war as about both money and ideological patriotism; the second from Mae as she relives her painful 30-lashes whipping and the strength to endure that she gains from memory of her husband in his love and quest for freedom -- we see the struggles of the South to make sense of its contradictions, of its need to "make people feel good about themselves" regardless of the cost, and of the inevitability of change. -- Pretty heady stuff, that had the opening performance's audience quietly assessing the play's themes at the intermission and after the performance ended.

But these words receive their impact through the expert direction of Leah C. Gardiner and the sensitive ensemble acting. -- One might quibble at the use of exaggerated Southern accents that can be discomforting as they can create unintentional caricatures, though here (especially in Ms. Vitlar's depiction of Lydia Frost) they effectively depict the deceptive nature of her character, one who becomes ever-increasingly frightening and crude and ultimately pathetic in her intractable insistence on her rights. In one scene particularly, she claims to be humiliated, though she has just humiliated Mae, and the picture of the two women side by side -- the one proud & haughty, the other humble and bowed -- leaves a lasting image.

Mr. Wallace's portrayal of Bibb is filled with contradictions. On the one hand, he avows the Union cause, on the other he rarely acts on his words, preferring others to do what he can not bring himself to do. His political debate with Cowles is one we could be having today -- "our rights are being taken away", "the country is falling apart" sound painfully familiar in light of recent debates of our own. And his inability to comprehend Cowles's dilemma -- to make the Confederate flag vs. to risk his livelihood for not doing so -- shows him as a counterpoint to Lydia's intractability.

And Mr. Koenig's Cowles, a man fraught with conflict & dilemma on the general political arena, is not so conflicted in his relationship with Mae. He sees in her what others do not or can not because of their blinkered vision. For others, Mae is a non-person, an invisible, one who can be overlooked or trampled without a second thought; but for Cowles, she is a talented person who can read and write and "figure" even though it was against the law for slaves to get an education, and he recognizes her abilities and trustworthiness, taking her into his confidence and thereby risking the wrath of the powerful. Mr. Koenig's ability to depict these conflicts (including a contradictory behavior in owning slaves while being sympathetic to the Union) and manage an ironic tone in many an encounter with Bibb and Lydia, provides an insightful characterization.

As Mae, Ms. Walker's ability to inhabit the slave's subservient posture [head bowed and not looking a white person directly in the eye] while communicating her independence from these accepted social restraints, and her adapting to each moment to ensure survival, as well as her uncomprehending delight at being treated as a human being by her white master, create a multidimensional character whose small triumphs should be celebrated.

Together, this ensemble creates an absorbing drama that approaches Ms. Wilder's subjects straightforwardly, leaving us to ponder them long after the curtain falls. There are no easy answers to the issues -- after all, many of them are still with us -- and the play concludes on a moment of both moving forward and taking a stand.