Waiting to be Invited
A Contemporary Theatre, 292-7676. Through Sept 16.

There are some great ideas in Waiting to be Invited, the first play by S. M. Shephard- Massat. It's about the battle for civil rights, the most important social movement in 20th-century America; and like Shakespeare's histories and Chekhov's comedies, Waiting uses real historic events to comment on our national identity. Rather than being about the larger-than-life heroes that led the movement, the play depicts the regular folks who came to participate after the movement was underway--four female friends who decide to take part in a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter. But one big structural idea troubles me: The protest itself takes place after the final curtain. While at first I found it formally interesting that we don't get to see the show's climactic event, the more I thought about it, the more I found myself regarding this absence as a kind of whitewash.

And I do mean whitewash. In the second act, one of the characters describes taking her son to see the movie musical Song of the South. The little boy was oblivious, but the mother felt awful--she knew the movie's happily singing slaves were designed to make the white moviegoing public feel good. I'm afraid I felt similarly about Waiting to be Invited. It struck me as tailor-made to make guilty white liberals (like myself) feel like American racism and African American history weren't--and still aren't--all that bad. That these things were really, as some of the ACT press materials say about the play, "funny and inspiring."

In the play, four women inspired by the l956 Supreme Court ruling on desegregation and the l960 Greensboro sit-in decide to join a protest at an Atlanta restaurant. The play opens with a brief scene in which three of the women--Miss Louise (Demene E. Hall), Miss Odessa (the powerful Ebony Jo-Ann), and Miss Delores (Cynthia Jones), who work together at a factory--change from their work clothes into the fine dresses they are planning to wear to the sit-in. The rest of the first act takes place on the bus while the women, driven by Palmeroy Bateman (a smallish part played with remarkable range by Keith L. Hatten), make their way downtown. Part of the problem with this hourlong act is that everyone sits for most of it; only the rotation of the ingenious and well-lit set gives the audience some sense of movement. Similarly, though much of the dialogue is humorous (Ebony Jo-Ann's Miss Odessa has some very crowd-pleasing lines), it doesn't really move the plot or provide more complex characterization.

Things change when an old white lady, Miss Grayson (Jane Welch), gets on the bus. Bateman and the three friends become polite and reserved, careful about what they say. It's a good illustration of what folks who trust one another, who have important things in common, often do when a threatening stranger enters their midst. But while it makes sense dramatically, it seemed like another whitewash to have the one white person in the play be a harmless, eccentric old lady--another Driving Miss Daisy-esque look at warm-hearted American race relations.

The second act takes place outside the business that the women are planning to protest. After the arrival of their fourth friend, Miss Ruth (Michele Shay), they discuss why they're afraid to sit at the whites-only counter. After a while the women start to tell each other (and the audience) about themselves: years ago Miss Ruth stole Miss Odessa's man; as a single woman without a family, Miss Delores feels she has very little to live for; Miss Louise's son is ill; Miss Odessa's family had dogs sicced on them. Once they've bonded through these revelations, the women gather their courage by reciting the 23rd Psalm together, then head inside to sit. The play doesn't show us this act of political protest or its consequence. It lets us leave, instead, with a warm feeling about the power of women's friendships. The almost entirely white audience at the performance I saw gave this show a standing ovation. I felt uncomfortable, though, as if I'd just seen a pilot for a new, Bush-era docudrama: Civil Rights Movement Lite.

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