The Class of 1971 1/2
Presented by Big Bawl Baby Productions
Through March 19
at Bongo After
If you were born between 1945 and 1960, you're a baby boomerpart of that post-World War II population explosion that embraced Elvis, The Beatles, acid rock, Woodstock, sexual freedom, antiestablishmentarianism and Vietnam War protest. The Southern baby boomer experience was tamer than the Northern version, with one huge exception: the issue of race. The loudest racial rhetoric may have proliferated in the North, but it was the South that most keenly felt the effects of enforced integration and the end of Jim Crow. Yet laws don't necessarily change attitudes, and this reality is the hidden force in Randy Moomaw's original play, currently being performed in its world premiere at Bongo After Hours Theatre.
A group of white women from Mississippi, all about 50, are reuniting in New York City. They have a unique connectiontheir parents all pulled them out of their soon-to-be-integrated high school just before graduation. One of the women, Jaie-Lynn (Arita Trahan), has seen fit to arrange a simultaneous get-together with her old friend Odessa (Vanessa Smith), who is black and was a part of the integration process, graduating with the regular class. Hotel room mix-ups bring Odessa face to face with Jaie-Lynn's friend Adelle (Holly Butler), an arrogant, neurotic corporate wife who would appear to be stuck in a time warp. The mature, accepting Odessa clashes with the superficial ex-beauty queen Adelle, who represents a lot that is offensive about Southerners who are resistant to racial progress.
There's some generally believable writing in Moomaw's dialogue, but like the Southern people it's profiling, his playwhich he also directedtakes a rather passive-aggressive approach to the issue of bigotry, which serves primarily as a springboard to character development. Adelle takes center stage, commanding the play's early high ground with obsessive concerns about her makeup, her medications, her impending Manhattan shopping spree and her 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Jennifer Richmond), who's come along for the trip and intends (unbeknownst to mom) to visit an Internet chat friend.
Yet the play's richer drama involves Jaie-Lynn and Odessa's own childhood relationship, which endured under the strain of the Old South's intolerance. Those issues come alive in Act 2, engender some apparently honest confusion and then get resolved more or less peacefully. That's a shame, because the opportunity to raise the dramatic stakes gets smothered by so many polite words, and the only person left standing on the other side of the racial divide is the stereotypical Adelle, wallowing in her upper-middle-class Southern comfort. The story also addresses the issue of aging in the role of Evelyn (Edith Costanza), Odessa's beloved high school teacher who, in the throes of early-stage Alzheimer's, has also made the journey north.
The play has a plausible setup, serious intent and more than its share of welcome humor. Yet as written, its strongest character (Adelle), played by its most dynamic stage presence (Butler), is not involved in its central conflict, which has to do not with blatant racism but with the subtler forms that infect even the nicest, most well-intentioned people. Trahan enacts her mild-mannered, tomboyish portrayal with sincerity, and Smith displays her usual quiet poise in a role for which she's well suited. But the good performances can't hide the script's uneven focus, its structural top-heaviness or its once-over-lightly approach to emotional confrontation.
Moomaw directs the action with a logic that enhances the realism, though his play would certainly breathe more on a larger stage. That said, Saturday night's sold-out crowd embraced the intimacy of the Bongo environs and applauded heartily at final curtain.
The Class of 1971 1/2 doesn't get a failing grade, but some remedial work might be in order.
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