BOURBON AT THE BORDER
By Pearl Cleage
St. Louis Black Repertory Company
A perceptive observer once described the theater as life with the dull parts left out. Playwright Pearl Cleage forgot to leave out the dull parts in Bourbon at the Border, the current offering at the St. Louis Black Repertory Company.
The play, with its realistic dialogue, acting, sets and costumes, does give the illusion of life. But all too visible just under that realistic surface can be seen the hand of the playwright, laying out the situation, pushing it the way she wants it to go. Instead of pulling you in, the play pushes you away when you feel that you're being manipulated.
Cleage lays out the situation in a long opening dialogue between two women. Some of the talk amuses, but I was ready to move on to action before the play did. Fortunately, the two performers who play the women make the scene worth watching. Linda Kennedy keeps a lighthearted banter going. But she also lets glimpses seep through of the tension tightening beneath the surface as her character, May Thompson, awaits the return of her husband from a mental hospital.
Kennedy is one of our town's best actors. She usually grabs my attention anytime she's on the stage. But Andrea Frye pulled my eyes away from Kennedy in Bourbon. Frye plays Rosa St. John, May's neighbor and best friend. It's a supporting role, and Frye doesn't hog the stage. But her comic delivery is so precise, her focus when listening to her friend is so complete, her pacing of a scene as it moves from comic to serious and back is so exact, her creation of a vibrantly alive individual is so rich and convincing that she effortlessly makes Rosa the most fascinating person on the stage. It's a performance to savor.
A.C. Smith is another actor who always brings a larger-than-life energy to a show. He plays Rosa's lover, a man with a big appetite for both work and play. Smith makes him warm and robust, but he's sometimes hampered by the way director Buddy Butler arranges his actors on the stage.
Ron Himes has the play's most problematic role. He's Charlie Thompson, May's husband. Charlie was a student leader at Howard University in the early 1960s. He helped recruit students, including May, to go to Mississippi to work in voter registration during the Freedom Summer of 1964. While there, they both suffered horrors at the hands of a white sheriff and his deputies. May has learned to cope with the aftermath of her rape and brutalization. Charlie still walks with a limp, but the scars on his psyche cripple him even more. He and May have fled to Detroit. There they dream of crossing the bridge to Canada that arches outside their apartment in Jim Burwinkel's striking set. They hope to find healing and peace on the rural back roads of a foreign land. In the meantime, Charlie is in and out of mental hospitals. May supports them by working in a cafeteria, and Charlie -- apparently neither of them ever finished Howard -- looks for work in a warehouse and as a truck driver. But we see no sign of the dynamic student leader May fell in love with. Charlie's temper flares a couple of times, and he gets into a gratuitous, jealous pissing match with Smith's character -- preparation, perhaps, for the revelation at the play's end that most of us in the audience had feared early on might be the direction the playwright was going. But much of the time, especially when he reaches out to May, Himes gives Charlie a childish quality that, pushed too hard, makes him seem retarded. That unfortunate choice turns the play's last scene into a parody of the final moments of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
Both in themselves and as representatives of young people who, despite the sufferings of the Freedom Summer, triumphed over evil and changed a society, May and Charlie deserve better than to end up as faintly ridiculous victims.