A few years before Martin Luther King Jr. thundered his "I have a dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a quartet of black college students stood up for equality by sitting down at a "whites only" lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. That singular act of courage, which spawned scores of similar, sometimes bloody sit-ins throughout the South, also inspired dramatist S.M. Shephard-Massat's grandmother to claim her place at the table. Her story, lovingly dramatized in Shephard-Massat's Waiting to Be Invited, recounts four unlikely heroes who put the Supreme Court's anti-segregationist rulings into practice by meeting for a lunch date at the fictional Marshes department store. As the Denver Center Theatre Company's world-premiere production proves, the everyday actions of ordinary folk are just as crucial to the fight for social justice as the vaunted declarations of philosophers, clerics and statesmen.
And no one, it seems, struggles more profoundly with that idea than Miss Ruth (Michele Shay), a local minister's wife who agrees -- in theory, at least -- to dine in Marshes' hitherto segregated lunchroom with fellow churchgoers Miss Louise (Lynette Du Pre), Miss Delores (Candy Brown Houston) and Miss Odessa (Ebony Jo-Ann). When the three doll-factory workers arrive in downtown Atlanta following a lengthy (and foreboding) bus trip, Ruth meets them in a park across the street and expresses misgivings about setting foot in the restaurant. Mindful of her position as a "pillar of the community" -- but, more important, schooled in the belief that what she and her friends are about to do is unthinkable -- Ruth defends her ambivalence with far-fetched warnings and flimsy excuses. "Suppose they got a quota and only let five in for the whole day or something?" she weakly offers just moments after wondering whether the whites will poison their food by resorting to "germ warfare."
Naturally, that sort of waffling doesn't sit too well with the others, who are counting on Ruth to fearlessly lead them through their modern-day valley of the shadow of death. In fact, the outspoken Odessa challenges Ruth to make the most of her position by emulating strong-willed women like Coretta Scott King, who made a habit of underscoring her husband's exhortations from the pulpit by appearing alongside him in public. "I am not Coretta!" cries Ruth. "Doggone right you're not!" retorts Odessa, who fans the flames of their argument by bringing up Ruth's checkered past. Suddenly, her sins exposed, her fears unmasked, her weaknesses revealed, Ruth falls upon her faith in ways that transcend her friends' dreams about a promised land of fresh tomato-mayonnaise salad and fish sticks.
Waiting to Be Invited, through February 19 at the Space Theatre, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100
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Largely conversational in tone yet naggingly urgent in feel, the one-and-three-quarter-hour play is performed on a spare patterned platform that revolves slowly throughout, suggesting the labored bus ride that consumes all of Act One and the swirling undercurrents of trepidation and acrimony in Act Two. In addition to eliciting a series of strong portrayals, director Israel Hicks sprinkles the dialogue with a few theatrical touches that, thankfully, allow the play to become a vessel for human feeling instead of a construct for preachy rhetoric. When references to historical figures and events (such as the Little Rock Nine) awkwardly intrude upon the ladies' conversations aboard the bus, for instance, Hicks introduces live choruses of xylophone or string-bass notes that represent coins cascading in the fare box or an unseen passenger's lurching gait (musicians Sam Gill and Warren Smith deliver their silky riffs while observing the action from one of the Space Theatre's vomitoria). Those artful touches make the play seem less like a cut-and-dried lesson and more like a fancifully serious tale about the distinct concerns of surprisingly disparate individuals.
Shay perfectly locates the tendency of the embattled minister's wife to exude fear one minute and rebelliousness the next. Whenever Ruth appears most vulnerable to another's reproach or lofty argument, the actress delivers a few unvarnished truths with unrelenting fortitude. "The Supreme Court don't love you," she declares to one character. "They don't even know your name!" She's matched in both obstinacy and intensity by Jo-Ann's volcanic portrait of Odessa, a hard-nosed woman acquainted with more sorrowful realities than can be assuaged by compromise. Self-respect on the line and patience exhausted, she finally lights a fire under Ruth by pleading with her to act like a leader and take the first step: "You're not supposed to be scared, sister!"
As Louise, Du Pre manages to shine a ray of simple hope into the darkness of her colleagues' despair, telling them it doesn't matter whether anyone remembers or even cares about what they do. "Today," she says, "it's about what we were and what we will become." And Houston is dangerously hopeful and naive when she repeatedly insists that governmental proclamations are reason enough not to worry about enjoying a leisurely lunch in the presence of one's adversaries. Veteran actress Jane Welch makes a welcome return to the DCTC in her Act One appearance as the avowedly religious and politely condescending Miss Grayson, while Keith L. Hatten shines in his role as bus driver Palmeroy Bateman.
To be sure, Act One seems more like the longest bus ride in history than a tightly constructed prelude to civil strife, and some theatergoers might be disappointed that Act Two doesn't culminate in a gripping, over-the-lunch-counter confrontation. But Shephard-Massat deliberately avoids showing the audience what happens inside the restaurant so that we might instead concentrate on a more far-reaching concept: Standing up for equal rights isn't just a matter of making a public display of unity; it also means being willing to risk wholesale change, personal humiliation and even physical harm for the sake of mere belief. As the DCTC's audiences are discovering nightly, that's an idea worth standing up for and cheering about.