THE NACIREMA SOCIETY REQUESTS THE HONOR OF YOUR PRESENCE AT A CELEBRATION OF THEIR FIRST ONE HUNDRED YEARS – Written by Pearl Cleage; Directed by Kenya Fashaw. Produced by Firehouse Theatre Company (7653 East 1st Place, Denver) through March 2. Tickets available at 303-562-3232 or firehousetheatrecompany.com.
Many organizations celebrate Black History Month with remembrances of the work of early pioneers – Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Height, Dr. King and hundreds of others who have fought the fight and braved the battle. Firehouse has chosen to honor the women who have worked to preserve the best of plantation life by celebrating with a high society ball that recognizes a different form of civil rights. Their foremothers had observed and copied the “right” way to manage a household in their positions within Southern mansions. In 1864, the Nacirema (American backwards) Society was formed by a group of freed women determined to preserve the best of Southern living and their personal dignity. Through the years, it has morphed into a group that celebrated itself with elegant events. A once-a-year debutante ball introducing six young women and their escorts to the best Montgomery, Alabama has to offer provided an occasion for the young people of this elevated group to dress up and celebrate their good fortune. Whether they wanted to or not.
The production opens one week before the 100th celebration as preparations for the big day are on high alert. Grace Dunbar is the calm at the heart of the tornado of preparations. Her granddaughter, Gracie, is the Queen of the Ball this year and everything must be perfect. But a monkey wrench is about to be thrown into the proceedings in the form of Alpha Campbell Jackson (Artie Thompson) whose mother was the Dunbar’s maid for forty years before her death. Alpha has her own daughter who is active in the Mississippi civil rights activities and is studying to be a doctor. Money is tight and she has devised a scheme to get what she feels is owed to her family. The fun begins in watching the oh-so-dignified dealings between the grande dame Grace and the down-to-earth Alpha and to see their carefully crafted dignity begin to disintegrate.
Grace is portrayed with unfailing – well, grace – (up to a point) by Latifah Johnson whose experience on stage and personal persona of gentility and style fit her well for this role. Her character firmly believes in the correctness of her position in the Society and the significance and importance of its meaning and purpose. Her all-female family consists of her widowed daughter-in-law Marie (Zeah Loren) who looks on all the fuss about the Ball with pride in her daughter and a jaundiced eye toward the silliness of it all. But she knows her place as the buffer between her daughter, Gracie (Liyah Patrick) and her grandmother. Gracie, on the other hand, has a realistic view about the frivolity of the fuss and has higher aspirations than marrying well. The final member of the household is Jessie, the maid, given delightful life by Larea Edwards. Her silent entrances and exits as she gathers coats, glasses, and flowers is always fun to watch. Without a word, she plays a crucial role in saving the day.
The remaining players are the members of the Green family, another legacy family of the Society. Catherine, played by Colette Brown, is Grace’s counterpart until put under pressure; then she turns into Edith Bunker, frazzled, confused, scatter-brained and frightened. What a treat to watch her transformation and her attempts to keep everything under control. Her grandson Bobby (Josiah Peters) is destined by his determined grandmother to marry Gracie. It doesn’t seem to matter that Bobby has his own ideas about that and his eyes on another girl.
Then we have the mother-daughter Jackson duo. Alpha’s machinations to provide her daughter Lillie with money for medical school form the conflict in the story. She is determined and righteous in her efforts. Her daughter Lillie thinks she’s crazy and inadvertently spills the beans before things too much out of control. Nadiya Jackson with her tight fro is a young Angela Davis look-alike and brings a laid-back energy and authenticity to her role.
Finally, the catalyst for a lot of the tension in the house is caused by a New York Times journalist, Janet Logan, who has come to Grace’s home to cover the Ball. While pleased for the publicity, trying to keep everything that unfolds on these few days out of the paper becomes everyone’s goal. Sydney Odion-Smith– in a first role – brings a more urban vibe into the proceedings. Confident and competent, she looks on all the folderol from a bemused distance.
There you have all the players. The plot will work itself out as you put all of these people with different motivations and goals in the same room and let them riff.
The design for The House of Dunbar came the imagination of Director Kenya Fashaw, the skills of Builder Jeff Jesmer and Scenic Painter Megan David, and the style by Helen Hand and her Southern ancestors. The costumes – both everyday and ball-worthy – by Holly-Kai Hurd are absolutely gorgeous. If I ever get to be a placeholder at the Oscars (personal bucket list item), I want her to style me. The lighting design by Emily Maddox makes the small stage at Firehouse large enough to provide multiple simultaneous acting areas by keeping the eyes focused on the right place as the action moves quickly. The Sound Design by Rick Reid added lovely transition and dance music in appropriate places and threw in crickets for good measure. A joint effort that resulted in a lovely setting for this funny show.
For a different take on Black History, check out the ladies of the Nacirema Society. You won’t be disappointed.
A WOW factor of 8.75!!