In the age of Obama, it's easy to take for granted just how much things have changed in the last 50 years. Tennessee Women's Theatre Project's new production of Eisa Davis' Warriors Don't Cry provides welcome perspective, re-creating a key early chapter in the civil rights movement: the tempestuous 1957 integration of Little Rock's Central High School. It's a vibrant piece of theater that both recounts the hostile tenor of the time and reminds its audience that an America where a black man can be president didn't come about easily.
Davis' play—adapted from a memoir by Melba Pattillo Beals—relies on a strong solo performance by an African-American female who can work the script's multiple emotional levels while also enacting many different roles. This task falls to Vilia Steele, who proves up to the challenge of portraying the 15-year-old Beals, one of nine black high-schoolers who entered Central High amid a firestorm of racist protest while Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus challenged a federal integration order, pitting local whites against National Guard troops sent in to protect the students.
Beals emerges as a likable, average, middle-class teen thrust onto the national stage, her simple world suddenly awash in hateful phone calls, physical threats, verbal abuse, military escorts and the terror of angry white mobs. Steele's ongoing monologues capably convey Beals' sensitivity and occasional naïveté, but the 23-year-old actress also nimbly switches gears to portray the supporting players in the drama, including her character's beloved grandmother, other friends and family, news reporters and NAACP officials, all of whom were thrown into the crucible at one time or another. Steele's powers of oral interpretation get a real workout, and she ably shifts voices in a true tour de force.
Playwright Davis employs a rather unique symbolic device: the Beals character dons a paper dress—a coat of armor as it were—to signify media reportage (when newspapers were king), the law (source of all the uproar) and the young girl's diary, which chronicles her youthful confusion.
Director Maryanna Clarke guides Steele steadily through the critically subtle blocking. Just as important, she ensures that the piece's raw theatricality isn't overwhelmed by historical details or political posturing.
Rear-screen projections help bring the faces and events of the time into more direct focus. The evening concludes with a screening of the locally produced documentary A Child Shall Lead Them, which portrays Nashville's own desegregation struggles during the same period via archival footage and interviews with the people who lived it.
Warriors Don't Cry will certainly appeal to those with an interest in social justice, but Steele's admirable achievement provides serious entertainment on its own terms.
Pros and cons
Original local plays are always worthy of attention, and Nate Eppler's latest, Filthy Rich, is at least one notch above the typical lightweight comedy, if a bit derivative.
Two con men enter the home of an aging widow and her daughter, primed to abscond with their jewels. The grifters get more than they bargained for—including a possible run-in with the legendary Anastasia Romanov—and as their elaborate ruses unfold, it becomes increasingly tricky to discern who's conning whom.
Even when Eppler's unlikely plot threatens to stagnate, he cannily keeps the funny going via sharp dialogue—a situation helped immeasurably by David Compton's sure-handed direction, which allows for generally successful comical bits and some outright slapstick.
Ultimately, it's the actors who make Filthy Rich work, and enough can't be said for Erin Parker, who trades smartly on the cheesy desperation of her eccentric character to reap wonderfully over-the-top results. She's countered nicely by Dietz Osborne, who, as her debonair but deadpan suitor, plays his role to the ludicrous hilt. Eppler is his bumbling sidekick, and he gets many laughs, especially in his scenes with Layne Sasser, well cast as the "Russian" matron.
The setting is the late 1970s, and Eppler throws in funny topical references (to the musical Annie, for example), while also tweaking us with random in-jokes, citing figures as varied as Simone de Beauvoir and Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart's character in In a Lonely Place). Vintage Herb Alpert music helps maintain the intentionally corny mood.
Filthy Rich plays at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre through Oct. 10.
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