History is never more exciting than when great events are made personal. "Waiting To Be Invited" tells the great story of the birth of the Civil Rights Movement through a very small event - the day when four ordinary African-American women sat at a previously segregated drugstore lunch counter in Atlanta, Georgia, to eat fish sticks and change the conscience of a society.
We know about such historic moments from news stories and front page photos, but this play makes the action much more intimate by only showing the events leading up to it. We join the women as they ride the cross-town bus to the drugstore, and then wait with them outside, just before they go in. In the process, we learn not about social issues and momentous ideals, but about unique individuals with everyday concerns and familiar but complex lives. We meet a couple of their friends, and we see how they inspire, irritate, amuse and support each other, exactly as ordinary people do. Because we come to know them so well in all their imperfection, pettiness and squabbling humanity, their simple act of conscience is that much more powerful, that much more heroic.
Playwright S. M. Shephard-Massat has an extraordinary ear for natural speech, and director Israel Hicks adds a marvelous sense of pace and emphasis. Sometimes lines are lost, people interrupt and lose their train of thought, and sometimes they just fall in love with the sound and rhythm of their own voices. It is natural speech, and cumulatively, it gives us a sense of people fully involved in the commonplace, while unwittingly involved in the extraordinary. It's a stylistic parallel to the play's action. It also allows the play's moments of real articulation, of exceptional meaning and importance, to be even more powerful and convincing. Beyond that, these women are astonishingly vivid and three-dimensional, never just representations of a writer's ideas, but complex and contradictory personalities. Everything in the play is perfectly proportioned, from the nature of the interpersonal conflicts to the history and depth of the friendships, to the play's final, exquisite beat.
In addition to smart and subtle direction, this production features an exceptionally tight and well-balanced ensemble. The character of Miss Odessa has the strut and swagger of a woman who intends to stand firmly on her place in the world. Usually a bit too loud, always occupying a bit more space than everyone else, and unfooled by most of the world's ways, Ebony Jo-Ann plays the role with such gusto that she becomes something like a force of nature, and a paradigm of the force of the movement she finds herself a part of. For all her brio, she is equally capable of showing the vulnerability of any woman in the face of deeply personal hurt and betrayal. As an actress, she stands out without ever taking anything from the ensemble.
Less grandiose, but no less emphatic is Cynthia Jones, as Miss Delores, a woman who seems to clearly understand the imperative of their action, even if she doesn't fully comprehend its significance. Clearly, a central theme of this play is the question of which matters truly test character, and what it means both to face the challenge of integrity, and to find the courage of action. Ms. Jones brings convincing decency to the role, and adds an intelligence that advances many of the play's most important choices.
Demene E. Hall brings a quieter dignity to her role as Miss Louise, which seemed to me a bit underwritten. Then again, there is certainly a point to be made, in contrast to the voluble Miss Odessa and the persuasive Miss Delores, that many of those who contributed in the most important ways were not verbal, either at the time when they were tested or in telling of it afterwards. In any event, Ms. Hall added a balance that was integral to this central group of characters.
Rounding out the play was a fascinating older white woman, played with great skill and clarity by Jane Welch, the minister's wife, played with a moving vulnerability by Michele Shay, and the bus driver, a delicious performance by Keith L. Hatten. There was nothing incidental about any of these roles, and in each case the artist's finely finished craftsmanship brought richness and distinction to their contributions.
The combination of smart direction and some very fine choices in physical production helped to overcome what may have been some technical problems in the script itself. For example, the discrete motion of the turntable during the extended bus ride of the first act helped a great deal in keeping an essentially static scene from becoming too visually immobile. The use of live musicians for the pre-show set a tone of authenticity and classiness that supported the dignity and truth of the drama. A few oddly dissonant tones, underscoring relatively unimportant early dialogue, suggested in an artful way that there was a deeper meaning to all this, that forces were at work beyond the immediate events. The rapid pace and glancing emphasis of some of the line delivery overcame what might otherwise have been a somewhat wordy text. And the performances themselves were so uniformly committed and competent that one never questioned the veracity or plausibility of any of the action. None of this is criticism, but rather a recognition of potential problems recognized and clearly overcome by Mr. Hicks and his company.
"Waiting To Be Invited" is a distinguished work, and one which allows each of us to take part in a great historical moment. More than that, it reminds us that our own lives are a part of a larger story, that we make daily choices that challenge who we are and what we stand for, and that every small act of courage for a just cause makes some small change in the quality of the world, and in the lives of all those who come after us.
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