Dallas — Pearl Cleage has framed her play Bourbon at the Border, given an area premiere by Soul Rep Theatre Company, as a story of “the ghosts of a Mississippi summer.” The script is informed by the experiences of Fannie Lou Hamer and countless others, as Cleage tells their collective story through her characters, May and Charlie Thompson (Renee Micha’el and Angelo Reid), Rosa (Contessah Irene) and Tyrone (Jerrold Trice). The 1997 play assumes the audience will have a basic awareness of the uncelebrated part of our 1960s Civil Rights Movement history, but this is an assumption which can no longer be made.
June 9, 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights activists were traveling from South Carolina through Winona, Mississippi, following a voter registration workshop. They were sitting in the wrong seats on a Greyhound bus (seats they refused to relinquish) on the wrong side of town. That evening ended with their arrest and with a beating of Ms. Hamer that was so vicious she lost vision in one eye and suffered irreversible kidney damage. This cruelty came one year after Ms. Hamer was sterilized without her knowledge as part of Mississippi’s effort to control the number of black births. Instead of beating her himself, the sheriff, who was white, forced other black inmates to beat her to the point of unconsciousness.
America was set to hear Ms. Hamer’s story through a live television broadcast at the 1964 Democratic National Credentials committee, but upon learning that she was slated to speak, President Johnson called an impromptu press conference so no one in the television audience would hear her. Silencing.
Bourbon at the Border is at its core a love story. May and Charlie are two ordinary people struggling to live out what was left of their lives following their extraordinary 1964 excursion to register black Mississippians to vote. Tyrone is designing a future which will make his Vietnam tour worth the sacrifice. Rosa seeks a place in the promised American dream.
The play is filled with references Cleage has sifted from the ashen stories of James Chaney, Andrew Schwerner and Andrew Goodman (more commonly referred to as the missing three civil rights workers). It is Friday evening in September 1994 in the Thompsons’ Detroit apartment. May is alone and anxiously awaiting the arrival of her husband who has been away in a mental hospital. Best friend Rosa drops by for a visit and upon hearing about Charlie’s release, becomes a little concerned for May’s safety. May becomes defensive at the suggestion that Charlie is a danger to anyone other than himself. Partly in an effort to distract May and partly to please herself, Rosa moves the conversation to her impending night out on the town with her boyfriend Tyrone.
Shortly after Charlie arrives, he begins his job search. May, fearing the harm stress might cause, tries to convince him to instead leave with her for Canada in pursuit of the dream they shared since their days at Howard University. All they have to do is drive across the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor, Ontario. But Charlie is obsessed with finding work and eventually lands a job as a truck driver, thanks to Tyrone’s recommendation to the boss.
The four friends are living their lives against the backdrop of unsolved murders of white men in Detroit. Bodies are mounting as is pressure on law enforcement to identify suspects. Rosa and Tyrone become leery of Charlie, considering him a logical suspect due to his mental instability. However, it is Tyrone who becomes the target of law enforcement.
During a tense exchange between May and Rosa, May finally talks about what caused Charlie’s mental breakdown, revealing that the root of his problems is enmeshed with what happened to her. It is at this point during her description of that one night in Mississippi that the influence of Fannie Lou Hamer’s experiences appears.
Cleage is a proven writer but this is not one of her best efforts. The first act is too long and lumbers along never, getting to the point, creating a pacing problem for actors to resolve. Under the direction of Anyika McMillan-Herod at the South Dallas Cultural Center, this cast responds to that challenge by not making the act any more tedious. The ensemble work during the first act is good, successfully establishing the quartet’s friendship and dreams.
Contessah Irene is delightful as Rosa and is the source of energy in the quartet, moving the dialogue along. She understands comedy and strikes the right balance in Rosa. Jerrold Trice brings levels to Tyrone without unnecessarily broadening the character. There is a lot of avoidance in Cleage’s writing, something Trice seems to understand.
May’s big reveal is the most powerful moment in the script. Music is an important part of the production, however hearing underscoring seep in under Micha’el’s monologue is unexpected and a little melodramatic. It isn’t needed—Micha’el does not require reinforcement in that moment.
Micha’el and Reid effectively establish the enduring love between May and Charlie, bringing the audience closer to understanding them as individuals and as a couple by the end of act one. In act two, some of that is lost as each moves toward a more overtly deliberate delivery with dramatic pauses and crossings, which slows the pace in a piece that is already longer than it needs to be.
Overall, this is an enjoyable production which educates and entertains, something Cleage is committed to in all of her writing. For whatever shortcomings the script holds, the cast gives these characters the resonance those who inspired never received, shattering the silence.