note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Libby Price … Michelle Dowd
Shelita Burns … Naeemah A. White Peppers
Interviewer/Robert … Michael S. Miller
Anna/Sister Margaret … Erika Ritton
Sean … Peter Brown
Though the fall season has only just started, you may not find a more satisfying evening of theatre than the Zeitgeist’s current production of Thomas Gibbons’ BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE, beautifully directed and designed by David J. Miller and performed by yet another of Boston’s golden ensembles. And there were only SIX of us in the audience on the night I attended --- eight, if you include two daughters of one the actors. How dare you! YOU MUST SEE THIS PLAY!
Shelita Burns, an African-American woman, works as an editor for a small New York publishing house; her particular line of books are by African-American women (past and present); voices she considers “silenced” by history, censorship or apathy. Shelita scores a bestseller with one book --- “Bee-Luther-Hatchee”, written by one Libby Price --- an old woman’s memoirs of her many travels through the American South due to her having a “smoke soul”; i.e., not feeling a part of humanity; hence her tendency to drift. (The title to Ms. Price’s book --- and Mr. Gibbons’ play --- is what her mother called the last train stop after Hell.) Ms. Price’s book receives a literary award which Shelita accepts in her name, the reclusive Ms. Price shunning all contact with the outside world, even Shelita herself (they have communicated only through letters). When Shelita travels down South to meet Ms. Price --- partly to give the author her award in person, partly to meet the woman who has become a mother-figure --- she learns a swift, stunning lesson in Art versus Life; her final action will have theatregoers talking for some time. No, Shelita doesn’t commit murder --- though in a way she does.
This is a beautiful play; one that is so distinctly American in its dealing with the issues of race and prejudice, of outrage and good intentions, and, of course, the craft of writing, the world of publishing and the baggage of celebrity. I commend Mr. Gibbons (a white Northerner) for tackling all of these subjects in so simple and direct a manner, his two major accomplishments being his refusal to settle for a neat ending and in his creation of Shelita herself: an attractive, intelligent woman but also a flawed, vulnerable human being who, in the end, sees the world in black and white as all too many of us do. Act Two could use some tightening --- his editor and her author hash out everything under the sun, and then some --- but Mr. Gibbons’ voice is a pleasure to hear; I listened with delight to his words that range from Shelita’s New York smartness to Libby’s folksiness and anger to the crabbed sentences of Robert, the kindly Southerner who takes Libby in for several reasons.
A well-written script, such as this one, can get by with so-so actors and still be compelling; happily, director/designer David J. Miller has a cast who are more than so-so --- they’re so-Good! Remember their names, for they all bear watching in the future: Naeemah A. White Peppers as the passionate Shelita; Michelle Dowd as the warm, Ethel Waters-like Libby; the enchanting Erika Ritton as Shelita’s gal Friday; Michael S. Miller as the well-intentioned but cowardly Robert, and Peter Brown as a soft-spoken stranger in the hotel lobby. Mr. Miller is equally good at orchestrating his quintet through the ins and outs of North and South, past and present; his pace for Act One slows a bit due to multiple blackouts with actors tiptoeing on and off in the half light, but that is a bug in Mr. Gibbons’ script, not Mr. Miller’s direction. And Mr. Miller has designed one of the Black Box’s loveliest sets: so simple and spare, yet so evocative --- add anything else to it, and it would be too much icing on the cake. You’ll see --- that is, if you go!
Finally, I salute BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE’s cast for their professionalism in still giving a wonderful performance to those Lucky Eight of us in the audience. Hopefully these scribbles will draw more theatregoers to this important new production that is easily one of the year’s best; I would love to see these actors send sparks and crackles throughout a full house --- and think of the discussions (arguments?) out in the lobby afterwards!
I’m planning to go back --- will I see you there?