Thomas Gibbons' intelligent new play explores questions of authorial voice.
By Cary M. Mazer
InterAct Theatre Company, The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., through April 4, 215-569-9700There is not one but three ongoing mysteries in Thomas Gibbons' fascinating new play, Bee-Luther-Hatchee.
The first mystery is one that has already been discussed by the playwright in the press. But (READER'S ALERT) if you'd like this first mystery to remain a mystery until it is revealed at the end of the first act, then skip over the next paragraph.
Shelita Burns (Shelita Birchett) edits a series of narratives by forgotten African-American women writers for a small press, and has just scored big by publishing an award-winning, best-selling memoir titled Bee-Luther-Hatchee by Libby Price (Cathy Simpson), a 72-year-old Southern woman whom Shelita has never met, and who wishes to remain out of the public eye, unphotographed and uninterviewed, in her North Carolina nursing home. At the end of the first act, Shelita meets the author, who turns out to be a balding, bespectacled, 40-something, conspicuously male and conspicuously white writer, Sean Leonard (Tim Moyer).
Bernard Shaw once wrote of A Doll's House (wrongly, I think) that the technical innovation of Ibsen's plays was that a play's structure was no longer exposition, complication and denouement, but instead was exposition, complication and discussion. Gibbons' play is, if anything, exposition, exposition, more exposition, and then one entire act's worth of discussion. In Act 1 we learn about Shelita's obsession with authentic voices, her anger about how black women have been silenced and, perhaps worse, patronized, her unresolved issues with her absent mother, and her need to locate herself in her culture through a chain of narratives handed down from symbolic mother to symbolic daughter.
All of these issues come into play when Shelita and Sean confront one another in Act 2: whether white men can tell black women's stories, whether a good story and good writing can stand independently from the identity of the storyteller ("Why is the author more important than the words?" Sean asks), whether writers should be invisible (especially when, as Shelita observes, black writers have been rendered invisible for centuries), whether African Americans have a monopoly on African-American stories, and where the boundaries lie between truth and the imagination, between fiction and nonfiction, and between ventriloquism, appropriation, cultural colonization and theft.
This is intellectually stimulating stuff, and Gibbons explores these issues with subtlety and sophistication, though Shelita - both the character and the actor - gets the worst of it in the debate, not because her argument isn't valid, but because she's put on the defensive even when she's most aggressive, and because, as in opera, the devil gets all the best tunes.
What keeps all this from being just discussion is the continuing presence of Libby, whom we see behind a scrim, speaking in her own voice, telling and reenacting her own stories. As the authenticity of Libby's voice becomes more complicated by the revelations of the play, so too her story becomes more germane to the issues being discussed by Shelita and Sean: how narratives get spoken and listened to, how listeners make storytellers immortal by retelling their stories, and, finally, how white men wish to atone for the sins their fathers have perpetrated on black women.
This last set of questions contains the other two mysteries of the play: what is Libby's true relationship with the young white widower Robert (Russ Widdall) and his 9-year-old son with whom she lives; and what is the meaning and relevance of "Bee-Luther-Hatchee," the one stop after hell on the train line of death, which gives Libby's memoir and Gibbons' play its title.
These latter two mysteries are enough to keep the play going after the first mystery is solved, even when the play settles into discussion mode, and even when it becomes clear that Gibbons cannot find a way to end his arguments or to end his play.
Still, the issues are compelling, the writing eloquent, and the play is mounted - as always at InterAct Theatre and as always under the skilled direction of Seth Rozin - with clarity and style.
But for me, the one big surprise of the evening is that Gibbons doesn't put more of himself into the play. Of course, he does: The issues facing Sean are the issues facing Gibbons, a white writer writing, as he often does, on African-American subjects, and a playwright effacing his own presence by giving voice to imagined characters.
However, what's missing from Bee-Luther-Hatchee is a greater sense of the theater. Gibbons uses the resources of the theater to tell his story (especially in the ease with which the play shifts from present to past and from downstage to upstage - a device Gibbons and Rozin employed in Black Russian two years ago). But the story he is dramatizing here has more to do with the issues of prose fiction, where the question of authorial voice is key and questions of authenticity more problematic, than it does with the theater.
When Libby tells Robert about her rape years before in a train compartment, she asks him, "You think you can feel that, Robert - feel what it's like to be a Negro woman?" Of course he can't. But that's what playwrights ask actors to do all the time - to imagine themselves into other people's lives; and it's what audiences are asked to do every time they watch a character on stage live and learn and suffer.
But that's a subject for another play. And when the time for that play comes, I hope Thomas Gibbons will be the one to write it.