With racial violence on the rise, racists increasingly fearless in spouting (and acting upon) their hate, and an incoming President owing his election, at least in part, to racist backlash against his predecessor, the timing could hardly be more apt for Sierra Madre Playhouse to give Thomas Gibbons’ provative Bee-luther-hatchee the powerful revival it deserves, now more than ever.
30something Shelita Burns (Tamarra Graham) is sitting on top of the 1999 publishing world, a memoir she has edited having just won its reclusive African-American author Libby Price (Leilani Smith) the prestigious Haywood Award.
Focusing on the years Libby spent keeping house for Caucasian widower Robert (Jon Sprik) and caring for his young son Shay, the bestselling Bee-luther-hatchee has touched Shelita so personally that she makes it her mission to fly down to North Carolina and at long last meet the infirm, nearly deaf septuagenarian with whom she has corresponded by mail but to whom she has not once spoken, not even over the phone.
Hope turns to confusion and dismay when Shelita discovers upon her arrival at Charlotte’s Green Lane Residence that no one named Libby Price or even matching her description has ever resided there, and worse still, that the P.O. Box return address Libby has provided suggests a deliberate attempt at deception.
The reviewers’ code of ethics prevents me from revealing who “Libby Price” actually is. Suffice it to say that the revelation of her true identity, and Shelita’s reaction to it, could well provoke more heated race-related post-performance discussion than almost any play in recent memory.
Some audience members may question whether Gibbons, a white playwright, even has the right to write from an African-American perspective as he has done, not only here but in Permanent Collection and A House With No Walls, no matter that women writers have been telling men’s stories for centuries, atheists have written about believers and gays about straights, and (lest we forget) a certain William Shakespeare once created thousands of lives not his own.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of cultural appropriation, expect to be mesmerized by Gibbons’ play, particularly as directed with imagination and finesse by Saundra McLain and performed by an all-around splendid cast.
An endlessly compelling Graham anchors the production with talent, charisma, depth, and grace, Christian Lebano’s fiery Sean Leonard provides Shelita with a worthy Act Two adversary, and the exquisite Smith’s quietly, deeply felt Libby lights up the stage in flashbacks opposite Jon Sprik’s touching portrait of a man making amends.
Sprik doubles effectively as New York Times reporter Brian Clark, and a terrific Olivia Cristina Delgado creates distinct portraits of Shelita’s all-American bestie Anna and a Spanish-accented Sister Margaret.
Among McClain’s inspired directorial touches is having all but the last Libby flashbacks take place behind scrims that turn transparent whenever scenes from her memoir come to life, those scrims (exquisitely painted by Orlando de la Paz in a style reminiscent of 1930s WPA murals) forming part of Christopher Scott Murillo’s latest ingenious scenic design.
Vicki Conrad’s then-and-now costumes, Jen Gies’s equally eclectic properties, Derek Jones’ vivid lighting, and Dave Mickey’s music-and-effects-layered sound design complete a Grade-A production design.
Bee-luther-hatchee is produced by Estelle Campbell, Joan Riback, and Lebano. Deborah Ross-Sullivan is dialect coach. Derek R. Copenhaver is stage manager and Gies is assistant stage manager. Todd McCraw is technical director.
Last year’s Deathtrap, The Glass Menagerie, and The 25th Annual Spelling Bee scored Sierra Madre Playhouse twenty Scenies for excellence in Southern California theater along with five Ovation Award nominations.
Not to be outdone in the new year, Bee-luther-hatchee opens 2017 with a talk-provoking bang.
Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre.
January 13, 22107
Photos: Gina Long