Whose life is it?

Bee-Luther-Hatchee raises provocative questions on art and race

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By Doug Deuchler

I'll say up front that it's a challenge to discuss the new show at Open Door Repertory Company with readers who haven't seen it. The plot involves a couple of major surprises that shouldn't be revealed for the play to have its full effect. Bee-Luther-Hatchee, by Thomas Gibbons, is a fascinating mystery that peels away, layer by layer, raising many provocative questions.

That cumbersome, hyphenated title, which comes from African American railroad jargon of the 1930s, refers to the next stop after hell on the train of death.

Director Jolaine Orlin keeps the action moving in this powerful production. Mary Pat Sieck is the producer.

Olivia Porter is excellent as Shelita Burns, an African-American editor in New York City who's on the fast track to success. Angered by how black women have traditionally been silenced and patronized, she's now publishing a small press series called "Rediscovered Voices" that features literature by previously ignored women of color.

Shelita strikes gold with an unsolicited manuscript. A reclusive old black woman named Libby Price writes an autobiography that captures the hearts of her readers. Even though they communicate only through letters, Shelita develops strong feelings for Price, who in effect becomes her symbolic mother, handing down wisdom through her narrative.

The writer wishes to remain out of the public eye, unphotographed and uninterviewed. But when her book wins a prestigious award, Shelita heads south to find the elusive author to present the prize in person.

But no one in the North Carolina town where Price supposedly resides has ever heard of her. When Shelita finally meets the literary star face-to-face, the author is not what Shelita had expected. She finds herself in her own Bee-Luther-Hatchee, experiencing a roller coaster of emotions from sadness to outrage.

Porter rings true as the outspoken, Ivy League-educated editor who can't see the world in terms other than black and white. The actress is especially impressive when she erupts in a rage of accusations. The script requires Porter to simply keep reasserting her position with increasing heat. Yet she shows great pain as well as fury.

Dale Glanzman is a middle-aged white man who may have known Price during his childhood.

Amy Rising is a supportive white sidekick and confidante who warns Shelita to respect her author's wish for privacy. This upwardly mobile pair has a lot in common: they're both work-obsessed, lonely Manhattan career women.

Wes Boyer plays a good-hearted but cowardly white Southern banker who employs a black live-in housekeeper for hidden reasons.

Ian Fabry provides some conflict as a probing writer from the New York Times.

A nun at a Southern nursing home is played by Amira Slumon.

Joslyn Jones is memorable as Price. "I've been a drifter all my life," the plain-speaking old woman explains. Her speeches often sound like pure poetry. Yet the play never fully lets her come into focus.

The question of who owns someone's life story was recently dramatized at Circle Theatre in Donald Margulies' Collected Stories. In that work, a young writer appropriates situations from her mentor's life and builds them into a novel. Here a hot button racial component has been added to the brew.

Act 2 is more focused and intense but falters dramatically. It's mostly a debate between the editor and the author that goes on far too long. The characters simply become mouthpieces for opposing viewpoints.

The play raises many questions and becomes a fine springboard for discussion. Yet Gibbons never provides easy, clear-cut answers because there are none. He forces the audience to probe their own values and consider their own attitudes.

I'd advise attending this play with someone who will enjoy discussing the issues it raises. You'll bombard one another with questions about art, race and politics.

Can white men sing the blues? Is an African America playing Mozart on her cello trying to be white? Is a white boy wearing low-slung baggy pants as he does hip-hop raps acting black? Is a black man who wears a pinstripe suit and carries a briefcase on LaSalle Street, or who wins a golf tournament, trying to be white?

And when does nonfiction cross into fraud or forgery? Can only African Americans tell their stories? Is it fair for someone of one gender or race to assume the voice of another? Can centuries of oppression and injustice be ignored?

And has Gibbons, a white playwright, created fully dimensional characters for Libby and Shelita?

The racially charged play ends without our learning what anyone has gained from the experience. So talk amongst yourselves.


? Open Door Repertory
Company, Hatch Auditorium, 1000 N. Ridgeland Ave.

? Through Feb. 20. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sunday Feb. 20 at 2 p.m.

? Tickets $18/$16

? Call 802-1723 for reservations.

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