Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Sierra Madre Playhouse
Through February 18
In 1985 police dropped a bomb on a predominantly black middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia. They were targeting MOVE, a strange radical group known for staging vociferous profanity-laden demonstrations against the Establishment. The bomb destroyed 65 homes and killed 11 people, including five children. Irish-American playwright and local resident Thomas Gibbons wrote a play about the event, but came up against criticism from some quarters for appropriating a story his critics felt was the exclusive purview of people of color. A similar experience dogged Leon Carmen, a white man in Australia who was criticized for writing a “memoir” purported to be by a half-aboriginal woman.
The brouhaha in both circumstances helped inspire Gibbons to write Bee-Luther-Hatchee, his 1993 play about the clash between an African-American publisher of works by little known black women authors, and the white male writer who poses as one of them and wins an award for a highly praised and deeply-moving book. It’s in many ways a vital drama, notable for the questions it poses and, notwithstanding its lengthy discursive second act and melodramatic elements, as pointed and timely as ever. But the current production at Sierra Madre Playhouse under Saundra McClain’s direction underscores its weaknesses rather than its strengths.
Shelita (Tamarra Graham) is a Princeton-educated professional, about to accept an award on behalf of a writer named Libby Price, a reclusive 72-year-old African-American woman she’s never met. The book’s celebrity is a coup for the publishing house and for Sherlita herself — besides which, Shelita feels an especial closeness to this author and her story, and travels to North Carolina to meet her and encourage her to come out of the shadows and personally accept the honor being bestowed.
But when Shelita arrives at her destination, a residence for the elderly, she’s informed that no one by the name of Libby Price lives there. Frustrated but undeterred, she contacts Libby by post and arranges a meeting in a café. To her astonishment and chagrin, the person who shows up is neither black nor female. “Libby,” it turns out, is a bearded white guy in a tweedy jacket, named Sean Leonard (Christian Lebano).
So ends the first act. Much of the second is a heated back-and-forth between the outraged Shelita, who accuses Sean of cultural colonization, and the appeasing (or trying-to-be) writer before her, who is attached to his work and earnestly asks why it matters who tells a story if it’s being told well. Meanwhile, throughout the play, the tale of Libby (Leilani Smith) — a brave and beautiful but oppressed and violated woman of color — unfolds in shadow behind a scrim (set by Christopher Scott Murillo, lighting by Derek Jones), with the recollection of her woes affecting both these passionate speakers.
With all its stimulating promise, however, the production doesn’t deliver — and while the script has limitations, the shortcomings here come down to performance. Graham is certainly well-cast as an assertive and intelligent woman, but there isn’t enough subtext behind her speeches (we may get the anger but not the pain). You never forget you’re watching a play, and that’s regrettably true with the supporting players as well. Lebano is far more adept with his craft, but just can’t bring this narrative to life all by himself.
Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; through February 18. (626) 355-4318. Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.