“There’s just no point in fighting me over it, that’s all. Want some coffee?”
“Your birthday’s coming up, Jessie. Don’t you want to know what we got you?”
You wouldn’t guess from those lines that Jessie and Mama, the lone characters in Marsha Norman’s tragedy (or dark comedy, depending on how you look at things) 'night, Mother, are arguing over Jessie’s impending death.
As Mama rummages around for packaged snowball cupcakes on a Saturday night, Jessie, her adult daughter, is looking for her late father’s gun. As the two sit together for Mama’s weekly manicure, Jessie reveals her plans for the evening: suicide.
'Night, Mother won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1983 after opening on Broadway and garnered four Tony nominations, with Kathy Bates starring as Jessie. The play follows two women: physically feeble Jessie Cates and her mother Thelma, aka “Mama.”
Jessie's plan to take her own life is disclosed as she gives her mother a manicure. Both women are pitiable and have suffered a lifetime of disappointments, particularly Jessie. As Mama tries to talk her daughter out of the plan, the desperation builds. It's a heavy experience for the viewer and a deep, intimate journey for the two actors.
'Night, Mother will open Echo Theatre's 19th season next week starring Amber Devlin and Jessica Cavanagh. Managing artistic director Terri Ferguson first read the play in college. “It was devastating then, and then I read it again as a parent and it hit home even harder,” she says.
Ferguson says the play’s ending still moves her to tears, no matter how many times she reads it. “Everyone in that audience will have had a similar conversation as a parent or child. It’s really extraordinary,” Ferguson says.
She also credits the production team, led by director Christie Vela, for putting together one of the most complete productions she’s seen of 'night, Mother.
Ferguson says a question she’s often asked about working for Echo Theatre, which exclusively produces plays by female playwrights, is, “Do you find enough good work written by women?” She also sometimes receives criticism for being a bad feminist, which she attributes to a misunderstanding of what feminism really means.
“People will say, ‘This play isn’t feminist! You have a male protagonist!’ And then I remind them that our mission is to produce plays from the female point of view, not plays that only star women.”
Ferguson is also the chair of the theater department at Ursuline Academy, an all girl’s Catholic prep school, and she finds herself answering to similar misunderstandings with her students.
“A lot of young women think feminism is over and don’t believe in it anymore," she says. "They are tired of hearing it; they take it for granted. I ask my students, ‘Don’t you want equal pay?’ and they tell me, ‘We already get that.’” But when her theater students assistant direct elsewhere, she says they often complain that their main duties are getting coffee for the men.
Ferguson is a mother to many: her own children, her students and every member of her staff at Echo, all of whom work on a volunteer basis. She cares for them all, and works to provide a safe, happy environment at Echo.
A rough start to Echo Theatre's last season has sent the staff reeling. They are still recovering from a disastrous production of Temple Spirit in Fair Park’s Creative Arts Building, which Echo refurbished themselves. The play was nearly ruined by rain leaking on the set. Ferguson said they also had trouble getting an audience to follow them out to Fair Park.
Dwindling media coverage and uncertain funding for small theaters are serious issues for Ferguson and her team. But while the trip to Fair Park was not a success, she’s in love with the Bath House Cultural Center, which Echo has called home since 1999.
“I love the Bath House," she says. "In fact, I wish we could do more shows there.” Renting a city-owned space presents plenty of challenges for the theater. Issues like not having access to storage or a set of keys can be hard, but those are small prices to pay as Ferguson sees it.
“I love having a small, intimate space," she says. "We are constantly reinventing what we can do here. I would never leave the Bath House if at all possible." Several area companies share the Bath House, including Wingspan Theatre, Pegasus and One Thirty Productions. It’s also home to the annual Festival of Independent Theatres. Ferguson is keenly aware of the challenges their fellow small Dallas theaters face.
There is a discussion happening right now about how to handle citywide funding for the arts in light of the proposed AT&T Performing Arts Center (ATTPAC) bailout. ATTPAC is asking for $15 million over the next 10 years to pay off their gargantuan debt. Smaller Dallas theaters would rather see that money distributed throughout Dallas’ various districts to better support smaller arts organizations.
By our count, Echo is one of two theaters in the entire country with a mission dedicated to producing female playwrights. Fifty percent of all new plays published each year are written by women, but only 15 percent of those are produced by theaters. Dallas’ average is slightly higher at 22 percent, and the city also boasts an impressive number of female artistic directors.
And yet, Echo is struggling. Ferguson considers the Dallas theater community among the most outstanding in the country. “We share our talent and there’s so much of it,” she says. But she’s afraid that patrons don’t always consider Dallas' numerous small venues when seeking out a play.
Funding for the arts comes down to tickets sold, corporate funding and philanthropy, says Ferguson. Art can’t survive without the latter. “I’m still waiting for the angel who comes down to us and says, ‘Yes, women’s voices are worth $100,000 a year.'”
To open a season with a tragedy like 'night, Mother might seem odd, or risky, but it is a fitting choice for this theater, which is dedicated to moving forward in good times and in bad.
“Echo said from the beginning, ‘We will be here until we’re no longer necessary,'” Ferguson says. As long as the girls are still being sent to fetch coffee for the boys, we still need them.
'Night, Mother plays at Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive, from Sept. 8 through 24. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays (pay what you can), Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, and Saturday, Sept. 24. Tickets are $20 to $30 at echotheatre.org.
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