Shelita is a poised and successful book editor, a young black woman determined to bring the urgent voices of her history and her people to life. As Thomas Gibbons's play Bee-luther-hatchee opens, she's riding the wave of a major success: A memoir she's published has become a phenomenon, achieving bestseller status and winning a major award. This memoir, by a 72-year-old black woman named Libby Price, had originally arrived in Shelita's office un-agented. It spoke directly to her heart; it roused long-dormant griefs about her own truncated childhood and absent mother. But Shelita never managed to meet Libby, a recluse who refused to make herself available for interviews and photographs. So after picking up Libby's award, Shelita decides to deliver it in person. And you probably know what she discovers. (Warning: Plot spoiler follows.)
Libby is a middle-aged white male named Sean Leonard.
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There have been all kinds of mini-scandals recently about memoirs whose authors claimed experiences that weren't rightfully theirs. Novelists have been stealing other people's lives for years, of course, but while there are some ethical gray areas to the practice, it only becomes a real violation when the writer pretends to actually be someone else — whether in pursuit of fame and money or because, like Leonard, he deeply identifies with his subject. These days, the topic is more complicated and combustible because issues of identity have become paramount: Is Ward Churchill really Native American? Given his unusual background, can Barack Obama truly understand the African-American experience? There are things in life that only women comprehend — menstruation, menopause, childbirth, vaginas. Shouldn't certain books, lectures and plays therefore be viewed solely by women? This is paralleled by a belief still held by some that certain environments — particularly the corridors of power — are appropriate only for men.
This question of whom stories belong to — all of us or only those who generate them — has been explored on a pretty exalted level. In 1967, William Styron published a brilliant novel called The Confessions of Nat Turner, about a nineteenth-century slave who led a bloody revolt. A hurricane of protest followed, and the following year, ten black intellectuals responded with a collection of critical essays arguing that Styron had not only trespassed onto forbidden territory, but distorted Nat Turner's character and life. Styron never fully recovered from the assault. Speaking to an audience at the Library of Congress many years later, he said, "When I began The Confessions of Nat Turner in the summer of 1962...Martin Luther King was offering the hand of fellowship to the American community, preaching reconciliation, amity and anti-discord. In the evolution of a revolution, 1967, when it was published, was a time of cataclysmic change in the United States. 'Black power' reared its head, and when it pounced, it pounced partially on my book. I was especially lacerated and hurt that it was labeled racist. That was hard to take for a writer who attempted to expose the horrors and evils of slavery.... Basically it is a very politically incorrect book written by a white man trying to seize his own interpretation and put it into the soul and heart of a black man."
Presented by Modern Muse Theatre through May 4, Bug Theater, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-780-7836, www.modernmusetheatre.com.
Bee-luther-hatchee is intelligent and articulate, but it succeeds more as an intellectual exercise than a play — although it does contain some interesting metaphors and devices. We see the young Libby Price and hear her thoughts; she defines herself as a "smoke soul," ever elusive. Denielle Fisher, a new face on the Denver scene, does well with the monologues, less well when working with other actors. Shelita's passion for her work is moving, and Jada Roberts gives the character strength and spine. Sean Leonard is far more than a cynical James Frey type; as a little boy, he knew and loved Libby Price, and his book is an attempt to re-create her on the page. Mark Rubald gives a rich performance in the role.
The beginning of the evening feels expository — Shelita has a friend (the luminous Denise Perry-Olson) who seems to exist only so that Shelita can describe her own feelings and intentions to her — and while things get livelier as the actions move forward, there's never much real drama. People keep talking at and past each other. No one communicates or changes; there are no unexpected character turns. And eventually you start wondering just how much power remains in these once-so-explosive ideas.