Good actors are doing their level best with a not-so-good play and a sub-standard production at African American Repertory Theatre in DeSoto. The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years — whew — is a dull period comedy that deals with secrets and lies in a well-to-do family at the top of the black elite of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
These doctors' wives and their nearly grown children live in mansions and have their own staffs of black servants whom they treat as brusquely as their white housewife contemporaries treated The Help. The ladies in this play are "The Helped," sipping sherry, going for dress fittings and planning a debutante ball that introduces their well-educated daughters to "the crème de la crème of Negro Montgomery."
As Cleage writes it, not only were these upper-crust families not interested in the bus boycotts and lunch-counter protests a decade earlier, they've never ridden a city bus and wouldn't be seen ordering coffee in a Woolworth's. The Nacirema Society types employ chauffeurs, belong to their own country clubs and marry within strict social boundaries, as caste-aware, Cleage points out, as the rich and poor of India.
But there's a fly in the buttermilk of this curdled farce. Grace Dunbar (played by Cheryl Tyre), the widowed doyenne in charge of the centennial Nacirema party (that's "American" backwards), is in a tizz about her late husband's Schwarzenegger-like indiscretion with their family maid 40 years earlier. The illegit daughter (Regina Washington) comes down from Harlem demanding legal recognition as an heir, and some cash to help put her girl, Lillie (Whitney Coulter), through medical school. Does she have proof of paternity or is she bluffing?
Convoluted and illogical plot points tumble over each other in the first act's 75 minutes of garbled exposition, setting up the overlong second act's confrontation between the haves and the want-somes. Cleage presents the Dunbars and their friends as awful snobs obsessed with whiteness (Grace mentions "Nacirema white" at least a dozen times). But the playwright also has younger characters talking with great enthusiasm about the Civil Rights Movement. Seventeen-year-old debutante Gracie (Perri Camper) researches a school paper on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which her grandmother dismisses as a waste of her time. Gracie wants to study at Barnard and be a writer, but her family says otherwise. She's supposed to continue her schooling as a legacy at Fisk University, where she'll major in husband-hunting.
The tone throughout is conflicted. Do we root for the bright kids to engage their hidebound elders in social reform? Or do we just laugh at old Grace's idiotic speeches about "honor, chastity and truth" as she tries to thwart the claims of the secret daughter from Harlem?
Cleage hasn't picked a side, so it's hard for us to. The playwright, now the writer-in-residence at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, wants us to like these snooty old bats and their fluttery relatives. But they are not likable. And they are not funny as they fuss and fret about whether Reverend King's upcoming march through Selma will disrupt their deb soiree. Cleage also isn't careful with the factual parts of her period piece. She has the Dunbars visited by a woman reporter (Nadine Marissa) from The New York Times who wants to chronicle the 100-year anniversary of the hoity-toity coming out party, even as Grandma Grace is trying to keep the visiting out-of-wedlock daughter out of sight. But the Times didn't hire its first African American reporter, Thomas A. Johnson, until 1966. Nancy Hicks Maynard, the first black woman reporter at that paper, started working there in 1968.
AART's production, directed with awkward blocking and poor visual composition by Ptosha Storey, also suffers from sloppy technical elements. The Dunbar mansion's parlor and library are decorated with cheap, mismatched furniture and "art" more suited to the walls of a fleabag motel. Set designer James Thomas may have had a limited budget, but the tatty stuff he's put onstage is an insult to Cleage's depiction of her characters as the souls of taste and refinement in the mid-century Old South.
Same goes for the ghastly costumes by Debra Washington. The "Nacirema white" gown worn by debutante Gracie and the evening dresses on the older ladies are cheap-looking and ill-fitting. There's no sense at all of high fashion in the 1960s in hair or makeup on any of them.
Still the cast tries to wring something out of the mess through sheer determination. Cheryl Tyre throws her booming, pipe-organ voice into the speeches by imperious Grace Dunbar. Tippi Hunter, always a joy to watch in a comedy, has some strong moments as a nervous matron tossing down glass after glass of sherry. Chris Piper, one of Dallas' best and handsomest young leading men, doesn't have much to do as a preppy college boy, but he does OK and looks great in his suit and overcoat.
In the smallest role as the Dunbar's tray-toting, coat-fetching maid, Liz Francisco, with not a word of dialogue, says plenty about black-on-black discrimination through her steely stares and sly smirks. Watching her glide silently on and off the stage, she had her own storyline going, one Cleage didn't write and that seemed far funnier than anything else in the play.