Halfway through Black Theatre Troupe's Waiting to Be Invited, I decided that the three women seated in front of me were more entertaining than the three women emoting up onstage. The actors were giving it their all, but turgid direction and a talky script were doing them in. My trio of chatty seatmates -- who cornered me during intermission to ask why I was scribbling in a notebook -- regaled me with stories of their unexciting workaday lives, which proved more interesting than the hour of theater we'd just witnessed.
As it turned out, I'd written off this program too soon. In Act Two, director Eric Ruffin allowed his actors to get up off the benches they'd been nailed to in the first act, and to abandon the Mametesque, overlapping dialogue that threatened to sink their performances. Free to roam the stage, each actor claimed her character with unbroken monologues and stylish solo turns.
Sherry Shepherd-Massat's script is a demanding text that draws its entertainment from conversation. Her story is less about the action the women take -- which we never see -- than it is about the passions that provoke that action. Waiting to Be Invited is set in Atlanta on the cusp of the civil rights movement. It's based on the true story of four African-American women -- one of them the author's grandmother, Louise -- who travel to a downtown whites-only lunchroom and demand service. The women plan to test the Supreme Court's new anti-segregation ruling by demanding the same rights that white folks take for granted.
Waiting to Be Invited
Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland
Continues through Sunday, January 21. Call 602-258-8129, extension 2, or 602-258-8128.
Along the way, the women encounter neighbors who either damn their efforts or cheer them on. The African-American bus driver who takes them downtown fears for their safety, and tells them they're wasting their time, while one of his passengers, an old white woman, applauds them. Later, the trio is joined by a friend who voices the fears of all four women when she describes the violence they'll certainly encounter.
While we never actually make it inside Marsh's department store (the story ends just as the women are about to enter), we come to know the terror and possible joys these women find at that lunch counter, thanks to smart dialogue that portrays every possible scenario inside. While there's occasionally too much of that dialogue, and several of the author's points are repeated, Shepherd-Massat leaves some of the women's stories unresolved -- a neat trick that provides some balance and texture to the proceedings. When she hears a story about a white boy who long ago tormented some black kids in her hometown, Louise wonders if she wasn't one of those black children. We wonder, too, and expect to find out before the evening's over. When we don't, it's because Shepherd-Massat is reflecting on the unfinished story of racial prejudice. As one of her characters points out, "Just because the Supreme Court says we have rights doesn't mean that people are going to like it."
There isn't a single weak performance here; in fact, several are among the best I've seen on any stage this season. I thought Evelyn Brown-Gray would steal the show with her brisk portrayal of uppity Odessa, until Elaine Bardwell wept her way through a solidarity speech in Act Two. Both women are given a run for their money by Keisher Glymph as a self-righteous former tart who worries that demanding civil rights will cast aspersions on her character.
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Ruffin all but sabotages these fine performances with sluggish and inconsistent pacing. If Ruffin's first act is mired in immobility, it's partly by necessity, as most of that act takes place on a bus. He presents a few interesting tableaux, but his players' overlapping first-act dialogue obliterates several good speeches. Ruffin further distracts us with the presence of an onstage percussionist. This fellow, in African drag and playing a native drum, is there to provide sound effects (all of them banged out on his bongo or another African instrument) and to remind us that this is presentational theater.
Carol Simmons garbs the ladies all in white, a less-than-subtle choice meant to signify racial segregation. Thom Gilseth's handsome, stark set provides a trio of plain benches before a single arched flat covered in newspaper clippings, presumably about the movement. Michael J. Eddy splashes this backdrop with muted colors and odd cutouts and, later, a wraparound photo of Marsh's department store.
That photograph is as close as we get to witnessing the ladies' singular act of defiance. But thanks to some imaginative writing and a stage full of fine actors, we're able at least to join Louise Sims and her friends as they leave their jobs at an Atlanta factory on a hot August afternoon in 1961 and head out to demand their rights.