Potent Bourbon

A tough-minded look at racism ultimately sells its fine cast short.

There's a lot right about Bourbon at the Border, and it's given a first-rate production by the Shadow Theatre Company, but ultimately the play is betrayed by didacticism and a weak ending.

The evening is introduced by a young girl with a terrifying smile and an even more terrifying message: For black people, she tells us, murder may be the only route to sanity. "Murder, just murder, would make us all sane." It's an argument that carries particular resonance at this moment in time: It's the argument of the Palestinian suicide bomber, the invading Israeli soldier, the murder victim's family, the bereaved and bitterly oppressed worldwide. It's compelling, seductive, and -- as playwright Pearl Cleage shows -- a swift route to chaos and darkness. The monologue is delivered with power and integrity by Shashauna Nickelson.

As the play opens, May (Jerine Guest) is awaiting the return of Charlie (Reggie Garner), her longtime love, who's been in a mental institution. We're given to understand that he's suicidal and suffers from depression; the exact nature of his madness is unclear. Keeping May company is her close friend Rosa, played by Roslyn Washington. Rosa is newly in love with Tyrone (Vincent C. Robinson), and she happily and humorously brags about him. Eventually, Tryone himself joins the women. So far, the play is low-key and charming, but the prologue has alerted us to darker currents. Later, we'll learn that the corpses of elderly white men, their throats slit, their wallets intact, have been turning up in this gritty Detroit neighborhood.

Jerine Guest (left) and Roslyn Washington in Bourbon at the Border.
Jerine Guest (left) and Roslyn Washington in Bourbon at the Border.

Charlie enters, and we see immediately that there's a special intensity in his relationship with May. "Daddy's home," he tells her with aching tenderness. "Daddy's home."

Cleage is clearly a talented playwright, though I don't think she's quite at the top of her medium yet. There are wonderful moments in the play; the dialogue is real, human, funny and warm. May, yearning to build a life in Canada -- which she sees as a land of beauty and tranquility, utterly unreachable, yet just across the border -- speaks of snow falling, changing everything yet "not making a bit of noise." Rosa exasperates her friends, but she endears herself to them and to us with a string of dumb jokes; she talks about her disappointment watching a Woody Allen movie and discovering that the sisters with whom she's been identifying have a black -- and to them, invisible -- maid, and she describes a phone-sex job she's applied for to a horrified May. (Washington's humorously faked orgasm puts Meg Ryan's outburst in When Harry Met Sally... in the shade.)

But there's way too much exposition; it takes up almost the entire first act. Even when we're up to speed on the background information, the action keeps stopping while one character or another slips into a long explanatory or memory-laden speech. The climax, when it comes, is another of these speeches, ratcheted up into one long, non-nuanced rant.

The speech, which describes the torture May and Charlie suffered at the hands of Mississippi law enforcement during the 1964 Freedom Summer project, when blacks and whites from all over the country congregated in order to register voters, does have a function. It clarifies many of the moments that precede it. We understand now the unbreakable bond that binds the couple, the tension between May and comfortable Rose ("Where were you when it came time to change the world?"), the understanding Charlie and Tyrone are able to forge around the horrors Tyrone saw in Vietnam. It tells us how crimes against humanity never dwindle into mere history but work their evil forward through decade after decade and generation after generation. But the speech goes on and on and on. And while Guest manages May's transformation from subdued gentleness to raw pain, well, there's still something off about her delivery. It needs more contrast and modulation; periodically it goes over the top. And in and of itself, the speech doesn't resolve the play -- nor does the melodramatic last scene. Please, God, you think, as an agitated Charlie storms on, not another monologue.

Director Jeffrey Nickelson has assembled a very fine cast. Guest's strength and sweetness as May are convincing; Vincent Robinson does a terrific turn as miserly, comic, generous Tyrone. Garner brings great warmth and passion to Charlie's swings between love and rage. Roslyn Washington is a gem, imbuing both her subtle moments and her outrageously funny ones with depth, intelligence and feeling. The costumes, by Linda Morken, are well-done -- unobtrusive in themselves, yet helping to reveal character, and Michael R. Duran's set is solid, functional and well-designed. Let's hope this excellent company finds a permanent venue soon.

 
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