Prejudice takes many forms. As a critic, I am continually bumping into the wall of my own prejudices. For instance, the idea of a free-form play on the subject of race relations sounded dreary. Perhaps what I feared most was preaching. This fear was not lessened by the two entrances to the auditorium marked 'White" and 'Colored." That gimmick, however, cut to the core of the issue rather succinctly. It reminded the audience of how recently this sort of humiliation was legally inflicted on African-American citizens. And what a sordid collusion I felt walking through a door marked White.
Story Circle, which played at the CAC and Ashé Cultural Arts Center, dealt with race relations, and it was a refreshing surprise. John Grimsley wrote the script based partly on stories gathered in 'story circles" " groups of people telling their own tales. The unifying theme was each person's perspective on the racial divide in America. This method of generating the material for the show was then incorporated into the presentation itself, which dramatized a story circle.
The show began with the talented cast standing in near darkness, except for spotlights on their hands, calling out short phrases emphasizing 'black" and 'white" in a rhythmic chant. Things like: 'I always had to prove myself because I was black." 'I don't consider myself to be a white person because I am a liberal." Everyone chimed in on the words black and white.
Next, they sat in chairs in a semicircle facing the audience. Harold X. Evans (the Navigator) sat at the center and invited the others to hold forth. When they were shy about starting, he himself took the lead.
He told a story about a man on a horse, a master of slaves. The horse throws him. His wife runs out of the house in horror, but the field hands can't suppress a chuckle. Even the house servants show the tiniest hint of a smile. End of story.
With the ice broken, others take up the theme. Karen (Carol Sutton) says she worked as a maid for an old-line New Orleans family who treated her well and with respect. Karen was not married and never had children. This may to some extent account for her attachment to the family's children, especially one she calls Missy. She nurses Missy through a severe fever, staying at her bedside without sleep for two nights. Once Missy recovers, Karen takes her on outings to the park, pushing her in a stroller and fawning over her with great affection. A cloud briefly darkens the scene when Karen sees a black boy drinking from a 'White" fountain, but she realizes he can't read and shoos him off to the 'Colored" fountain, which she disparages as fit for horses, not human beings.
Later, Karen takes the story further. The darkness thickens until a metaphorical storm bursts: school integration. She is shocked by an overheard conversation. Her boss goes into a tirade against the 'n***** girl" who wants to get into a white school. Finally, Karen's beloved blond-haired, blue-eyed Missy " afraid her party will be ruined " lets fly with an outburst about the black girl causing all this trouble. Karen is deeply angered and hurt. She refuses to prepare the party, and the next day, she is fired.
There's not space enough to recount all the fascinating stories that spring from the circle. Karen's story, and many others, come from the troubling perspective of African-American suffering. Some go back as far as slavery. But no easy conclusion is reached. For instance, in one story, a white female cop gets rough with an innocent 'big black boy," who lives in an almost exclusively white town. Later, the cop also gets to give her vision of the young black men she deals with on the streets and the violence they wreak. Along the same lines, a male nurse tells of being harassed by black teens in his Uptown neighborhood, and of his wife's fears of driving home alone or with their kids. Clearly, this presentation is as complicated and nuanced as the subject itself. There are no easy answers in Story Circle.
John O'Neal's direction was skillful and discreet. A bravo goes to the cast: Troi Bechet, Diana Shortes, Chris Williams, Philip Tracy, Carol Sutton, Harold X. Evans, Kerry Cahill and Dollie Rivas. If playwright Grimsley and director O'Neal revive the show, as they plan to do, you won't want to miss it.
- Antoinette (Troi Bechet) recounts a story of discrimination in Story Circle.