An important new play receiving spontaneous standing ovations has opened at the Wetumpka Depot. Kristy Meanor's assured adaptation of Doug Segrest's debut novel A Storm Came Up tackles sensitive subjects that were prominent in the Jim Crow South, issues that unfortunately are still too much with us.
Set in the fictitious town of Takasaw, Alabama in the 1960s, the racial divide and the Civil Rights Movement may be ancient history to some, but for those of us who lived through it, our collective memory will be triggered by this play.
References to such things as George Wallace's "segregation forever" narrative and the deaths of the "four little girls" at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, as well as various details of Alabama's rural places, keep the play's fiction firmly within the realm of possibility. And the presence of KKK members depicted on stage, and characters conflicted by the imminent de-segregation facing them, vividly show what many people might want to forget: that enablers can be just as guilty as overt racists in promoting hatred and bigotry.
We know the place and the people. And we ought to be uncomfortable with its truth-telling, despite the misinformed Critical Race Theory rhetoric from some of our leaders.
The plot centers on the lives of three teenage friends -- boys who witnessed a brutal murder of a Black man, and who promised to keep it secret for the rest of their lives out of fear of repercussions. Cousins Braxton [David Shelnutt] and Andy [Jay Russell] are white, and Moses [Drey Wingate] is Black. They seem to be living an idyllic life, but the times are changing.
A few years after that traumatizing event, the world is transforming around them: a bi-racial committee has been organized to propose among other things that the local high school be integrated. Some of Takasaw's citizens resist change peacefully while others are in denial regarding their own deep-rooted prejudices; and others are active Klan members. The boys' individual actions that go beyond their adolescent dreams of football victories or romantic conquests impact their families and friends as they are confronted by the choices they will have to make in order to survive into adulthood.
The plot is narrated by Rufus [Tony Davison], the local gravedigger who serves as a kind of all-knowing and ever-present Greek Chorus. Ms. Meanor cleverly intertwines non-dramatic narration with Rufus' gradual direct participation in the story, and Mr. Davison keeps a calm note amidst the two acts' growing tension.
Ms. Meanor directs her cadre of actors who create credibly detailed characters in support of the main plot, and help illustrate the play's messages. -- There is no "star" in this production, rather, a fine tuned ensemble whose task it is to tell a nuanced story through their relationships and actions; and in this they succeed, by mixing serious and gently humorous moments that are true to life.
And she clearly trusts her audiences: the script does not flinch from using offensive racist language or adult subject matter, both of which are integral to honestly portraying these very real subjects; so while we may occasionally be jolted out of our comfort zones, we also can drop our objections and consider the weight that the past still imposes on our 21st Century behavior.
We are clearly meant to take sides with the decent folks in Takasaw: Braxton's parents [Douglas Mitchell and Leslie Blackwell] and Moses's grandmother [Adele Burks] and mentally challenged brother [Johntavious Osborne] are people who live by a moral code in a world growing dirtier by the minute, pitted as they are against the hypocritical Klan leader [James Ward] and his ilk who have enticed Andy to join them in burning churches and meting out their form of terrorist justice on people of both races who resist them.
There are several scenes that sensitively show how Black and White families who have lived closely together as equals and who would come to one another's aid in times of need, might drift apart because no matter how close the friendship, they can never quite understand that race and racial discord impacts them differently.
Ms. Meanor and Mr. Segrest do not resolve the issue of racism in A Storm Came Up -- indeed, it is too much with us in 2022. But there is hope at the end of the play. Hope in second chances. Hope that if we agree to do what is right, we might emerge better. Hope that we should not be afraid of change. Hope that people can and ought to be judged by their character and not their skin color. Hope that we might be able to face a future without regret.