For his new play Mississippi Goddamn, Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton does something unexpected and a bit radical in his look back at the 1960s civil rights movement. Instead of simply lionizing Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary who worked to overturn Jim Crow laws and was assassinated on his own front porch in 1963, Norton explores what it might have been like to live so close to controversy.
In the play's premiere at the South Dallas Cultural Center, directed by vickie washington (sic) with a cast of strong local actors, the central characters aren't Medgar and wife Myrlie, though they do appear. The drama unfolds in the spring of 1963 in the Jackson, Mississippi, living room of Evers' neighbors, Robert-Earl and wife Gertie (played by Calvin Gabriel and Stormi Demerson). He's a high school football coach; she's a teacher. Their oldest daughter, Claudette (Whitney LaTrice Coulter, who also plays Myrlie Evers), has married an academic (Jamal Sterling, who also plays Medgar).
The younger couple wants to get out of the troubled Deep South and relocate to more liberal Oakland, California. Gertie hopes her other daughter, 16-year-old Robbie (Ashley Wilkerson), can live with Claudette and her husband in Oakland to escape the violence erupting in Jackson. Robbie, who idolizes the Everses to her parents' dismay, has already been roughed up by white police officers and spent a few hours in jail.
The first act is mostly noisy domestic drama set against the backdrop of social unrest. Robert-Earl and Gertie own a nice ranch-style home in one of Jackson's first subdivisions built for African Americans. White supremacists are harassing them at home and on the job. Robert-Earl keeps a shotgun by the front door to scare off "crackers" who cruise by nightly.
The conflict, however, isn't all between whites and blacks. In a second-act flashback to several years earlier, we see Gertie and Robert-Earl conspiring to force the Everses to sell their house and move away. Gertie has even written an angry op-ed berating the Everses for stirring up trouble. Robert-Earl and his friend Chuck (Tyrees Allen) have secretly invited some white men to escalate threats to Myrlie and Medgar.
This is ugly stuff written with smart perspective in a play that still needs polish. Norton strands characters alone onstage a time or two and there's a final unnecessary scene that jumps ahead several decades. But what's impressive about Mississippi Goddamn, aside from fiery performances by Demerson and Wilkerson, is its refusal to mythologize. By visiting the house next door, this play finds some hard truths that hit home.
Miss Evers' Boys at African American Repertory Theatre is an older drama about another chapter in black history: The 1932 Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, which subjected 600 men to a cruel experiment in medical neglect that went on for decades. The fact-based 1992 play by writer and physician David Feldshuh follows four male patients — Caleb (Artist Thornton Jr.), Willie (Christopher Dontrell Piper), Hodman (Alonzo Waller) and Ben (Selmore Haines III) — and their relationship with nurse Eunice Evers (Regina Washington).
Miss Evers (no relation to Medgar) gains the trust of the nearly illiterate men by driving them to dance competitions and teaching them to write their names. She also persuades them to sign papers waiving their right to receive the penicillin that would cure them. For their suffering, they receive checks for $14 and free burial when they die of the horrors of syphilis.
The play repeats itself and its "This isn't fair!" arguments for almost three hours. AART's production, directed by Belinda Boyd, is bogged down by lethargic pacing and uneven performances. Piper, as aspiring dancer Willie, can make any turgid bit of dialogue sound spontaneous, but the others struggle. Washington falls into the habit of whispering the last three words of every line.
What Miss Evers' Boys needs is a good shot of B-12.
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