Dallas — Some shows have warnings for strobe lights. Some have them for loud gunshots. Some for smoke.
Mississippi Goddamn, a new play by Jonathan Norton making its premiere at the South Dallas Cultural Center, should have one for intensity.
Granted, anyone attending a play about civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers set in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi, should expect some strife. Blood in the battle for racial equality is no surprise, but friendly fire is. Playwright Norton sets expectations on edge by focusing on the fight from the living room of the black neighbors next door to the Evers’ home. Director vickie washington combines a first-rate cast with playwright Norton’s novel take in an unflinching pressure cooker of a production.
Considering the intensity, can you handle it?
Considering the history, how can you not?
In a comfortable living room courtesy of designer Rodney Dobbs with period setting costumes from designer Rhonda Gorman, Claudette (Whitney LaTrice Coulter) argues with her mother, Gertie (Stormi Demerson), against hosting her little sister, Robbie (Ashley Wilkerson) in California for the summer. Robbie, who is 16 and a spitfire, would be a lot for Claudette and her husband, Jimmie (Jamal Sterling) to handle, but Gertie is desperate for Robbie to get out of town. Maybe it’s mother’s intuition; maybe it’s something else.
Robert-Earl (Calvin Gabriel) is Gertie’s archetypal “last-to-know” husband. It makes him a paradoxically stronger character, however. Whereas Gertie is made of strong resolve, it is made off stage. By being caught flat-footed, we get to see Robert-Earl’s struggle in making the hard decisions.
There to interfere in the struggle is a concerned neighbor, Chuck (Tyrees Allen). The unrest in the neighborhood resulting from Evers’ activity not only makes it unsafe for rambunctious Robbie, but it’s also bad for business at his diner downtown. Something must be done. This aspect of the story comes from the fact that some of Evers’ black neighbors tried to buy him out of the neighborhood.
Playwright Norton takes this historical kernel and creates a world in which only the adolescent youth pursues the idealistic aim and she does it with reckless abandon. Everyone else has the more measured concerns that come with growing up and growing comfortable: family, job and property. Their position tempers their pursuit of racial equality, so much so that the people he is championing perceive Evers as a threat. On this score, the play transcends race and asks, “At what cost, comfort?”
To that end, playwright Norton turns the comfortable environ against itself. With people driving by and knocks on the door, front and back, the middle class palace becomes a prison. Director washington and the cast play out these threats with the precision of a Hitchcock thriller. The intermission provides valuable minutes for heart rates to come back under control.
In a risky playwriting move, Norton moves the action four years back in time. As confusing as it is, some of the mystery of the first act is preserved by reserving the backstory ‘till the second. Patterns emerge but by inverting the sequence, it comes off as discovery instead of predictability. Call it “The Prequel Effect.” Chuck and Gertie are in cahoots, again; Robert-Earl is last to know again. The tension mounts terrifyingly. There’s even some visceral combat provided by fight choreographer Charlton Gavitt, who also designed the lights.
There are some changes, though. The Evers, Medgar and Myrlie, who we heard so much about in the first act, make their first appearance in the second, played by Sterling and Coulter, who do an excellent job of distinguishing these characters from Jimmie and Claudette. The other great change is that Robbie is young and impressionable. As thrilling as the events of the second act are, a close second is watching the effect they have in forming her attitudes. It becomes its own play.
This historical thriller is an ensemble achievement of the first order with long sequences building tension in both acts, but without its emotional base it would be a roller coaster ride that was fun for as long as you rode it and nothing more.
This cast makes real their characters’ dilemmas. Tyrees Allen sets the stakes and the bar high. You’ve probably never considered the economic ramifications of integration on a black diner when the customers can eat at Woolworth’s where they shop. Calvin Gabriel walks a fine line as Robert-Earl dealing with Gertie. There’s menace when he lays down the law, but it comes from fear for his family and the love that he has for them. But the biggest cross balanced across the shoulders is carried by Stormi Demerson as the matriarch, Gertie. Through it all, Demerson keeps Gertie’s heading clear. May we never be forced to choose between our values.
It’s not without its flaws. The exposition in the beginning and in the entire last scene interferes with establishing tension between the characters. It’s noticeable mostly in comparison to the rest of a play that is so rich in conflict. But these are easily fixed, as this is the premiere.
As such, it’s even more of an event: a premiere by a local playwright and winner of an award from the Mid-America Arts Alliance. Though it was commissioned by the Diaspora Performing Arts Commissioning Program at the South Dallas Cultural Center, it’s clear that this play is much larger than Dallas.
Be among the first to see it, because it’s going places.
Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
» Read our interview with Jonathan Norton