Dallas — Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote one of the most brilliantly simple songs about racism with “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from their 1949 musical South Pacific: “You've got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made / And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade … You've got to be taught before it's too late / Before you are six or seven or eight / To hate all the people your relatives hate.”
“Carefully” doesn’t necessarily mean that people who grew up thinking that “the other” is less-than were taken to weekly neo-Nazi rallies or shouted at that certain groups of people are not to be trusted, or are dangerous, or lazy, or godless. More than likely, they watched their parents and other relatives casually espouse such ideas, as did their friends, who mirrored their parents. Regardless of the level of intention, care was taken to ensure that the proverbial apple does not fall far from its tree, and it definitely doesn’t mix with the other varietals.
That is essentially the message in Mississippi-born, New York-based playwright Boo Killebrew’s Miller, Mississippi, having its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center in the Sixth Floor Studio Theatre at the Wyly Theatre. It’s a poetically crafted play that, like other important works of art, can be tough to watch. To add intrigue, Killebrew has formed it in a Southern Gothic package, in which the ghosts talked about aren’t as frightening as the lives and fates of the characters.
Directed by frequent Killebrew collaborator Lee Sunday Evans, Miller follows a white family in Jackson, Mississippi, from the early 1960s to the early ’80s, with a final scene—an epilogue of sorts—set in 1994. The Millers are led by matriarch Mildred (Sally Nystuen Vahle), who after the death of her husband, a prominent judge, relies more on black housekeeper Doris (Liz Mikel) to help watch after children John (Dylan Godwin), Becky (Leah Karpel) and the eldest son, Thomas (Alex Organ).
Despite growing up with Doris as a parental figure and friend, the children take different paths in following the parents’ views of Civil Rights and social change happening around them in the 1960s, especially in the South. John realizes early on that he can be an ally, “a vessel” who is on the right side of history (in today’s lingo, he’s the most woke). Thomas possesses the kind of confidence, and arrogance, that gets him fast success, and follows closely—too closely—to what he was “carefully taught” by his father. Becky, caught in the middle, uses her creative talents to cope with being pulled in either direction.
Saying any more would spoil it, but Killebrew makes insightful commentary on something that goes beyond casual, individual racism and gets to the heart of how systemic inequality creeps into institutions and policy. It’s much deeper than defending using the N-word because you were never told it was wrong. It’s that thing that leads to anger, devoid of empathy or critical thought, over the dismantling of Confederate monuments, athletes who take a knee during the national anthem, and the suggestion that a mascot like “Redskins” should be changed.
Throughout the play, the actors rip pages from wall calendars on either side of Brett J. Banakis’ bi-level set that opens into a thrust of a living/dining area. Sometimes the change reflects a month; other times, years or decades. Banakis also designed the video, which uses news footage before and during the play, displayed on a console TV, to remind of state and national goings-on. Freedom Summer, the murder of men who arrived to help register voters, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. are just a few. About the Mississippi sheriff Lawrence Rainey, who was a Klansman, one character says “they elected Mr. Rainey to do exactly what he did.”
Killebrew worked on this DTC commission for three years, visiting the theater several times and witnessing the resident actors onstage, and writing some of the characters for them (of this cast, Godwin and Karpel are not local). It was announced on this season well before the 2016 election, but that line about Rainey is especially prescient—although it wasn’t difficult to see coming.
This ensemble is like a chamber music group whose members have played together for decades, and on tonight’s program is a work in which dissonance is an uncomfortable but important part of the composition. Vahle is tough in a role that could be heartbreaking—and who isn’t free from blame. As Doris, Mikel is fiercely protective, especially when it comes to her own family (who we never see). Near the end she plays another character who values her job too much to say everything that’s on her mind—but she knows what’s going on. Karpel has the difficulty of a character arc that’s painfully tragic, and handles it beautifully.
As John, the character who is the heart of the play, Godwin attacks the role with the spirit of someone who knows that justice is always worth fighting for even if it means losing people you love—or used to love. In his story, there is a questionable timeline issue that I suspect Killebrew had to fudge for the final scenes. The Southern Gothic frame allows leeway, too.
Organ is not praised enough for his versatility as an actor, perhaps because he’s so good at playing the villain who doesn’t know he’s a villain. How audiences view this character will be telling in their reaction to the play overall. Yes, Thomas does unquestionably awful things that could be explained as repeating the sins of his father. But in creating the John character, who grew up in this same circumstances, Killebrew tells us that Thomas should know better; he should have figured it out. The fact that he carries his deplorableness into his professional life—which will affect thousands of other lives through his judicial decisions and policy-making—is the gut-punch warning of this play.
The Dallas Theater Center's production, which also features costumes by Karen Perry and haunting original music and sound design by Daniel Kluger, hits all the notes of good, thought-provoking art. Hopefully Miller, Mississippi will be produced by regional theaters and seen by more audiences who need to think about the ways in which they were carefully taught.