By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
As Tennessee Williams’ immortal Blanche DuBois once said: “Sometimes – there’s God – so quickly!” I don’t want to compare Blanche’s horrifying situation to my own; I mean, she’s being carted off to the looney bin and I’m just depressed having spent so much of my life watching bad theater. But I can relate to Blanche’s amazement when something beautifully unexpected happens. (Since there’s no God I need to do a rewrite.) “Sometimes – there’s a wonderful play – so quickly!”
And that wonderful play would be Melda Beaty’s 2017 comedy/drama Front Porch Society in a local premiere by New Horizon Theater – surely one of the best new works I’ve seen in a long time. After so many years of, well see above, I wasn’t expecting enchantment when I sat down but – suddenly … so quickly!
Front Porch Society continues through February 17. Falk School, Oakland. 412/431-0773. newhorizontheater.org
It’s true that a precis of the script doesn’t signal enchantment ahead. The play takes place in Marks, Mississippi and is set on the front porch of Carrie Honey, where she and the other town matriarchs congregate to share local gossip and strengthen the bonds of their decades-long friendships. But today is different. It’s November 4, 2008 and these four African American women will be voting for Barack Obama.
Like I said, such an outline doesn’t hint at what’s in store – but part of Beaty’s genius is that she can take something so seemingly matter-of-fact and without even the slightest hint of artifice or melodrama work it into an evening of great depth and powerful theatricality.
The conflict running through the show is that this day is also an anniversary for Miss Honey – years ago her son was dragged from her house by the police, imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and on November 4, 1967 was killed in his cell. For 41 years Carrie has pleaded with law enforcement, politicians and lawyers to get justice. But nothing happened and no one lifted a finger. So while friends and neighbors are delirious with the prospect of a black President of the United States, Carrie has no Hope and only thinks “No. We can’t.”
Karla Payne brings to the role a level of feeling and emotional weight that, at times, takes away your breath. When she wraps her gorgeous talent around one of Beaty’s darkly moving monologues you are transported.
It’s truly remarkable the way Beaty can juggle the powerful hurt of Carrie’s truth with the elevating joy of those around her. Sister Stallworth, the pastor’s wife, is ready to drive Obama to D.C. herself if necessary, no doubt dishing the town dirt to him the whole way. She is a strong example of how a skilled playwright can create a funny, broad character without making her a cartoon. And it doesn’t hurt to have Tracey D. Turner bringing her ability to the role. She allows the humor to grow out of the character and when the emotional tables turn Turner surfs that wave as well because her flawless performance has been built with rock-ribbed honesty.
Rita Gregory’s having a ball playing a third porch sitter, Ms. Martha. She’s 93 years old and with wicked glee subverts every genteel notions we have about a woman of such advanced years. But even here, in what is the obvious “comedy part” Beaty makes sure we don’t forget what the past 93 years have been like for African Americas in this country.
Again and again Beaty introduces everyday characters and quotidian plot points and it all seems as natural as breathing. These are people you know, or people you know about and their story carries you amazingly far before you even how invested you’ve become in the journey.
Credit director Herb Newsome for marshalling all this talent with such impeccable exactitude. Following Beaty’s blueprint, he allows every emotional beat to bloom from the moment before and has done an extraordinary job bringing these performances out of this cast.
Additional roles include the town mailman, here played by Kevin Brown. I could probably watch Brown just walk across the street and consider it a highly entertaining day; to see him here brimming with such happiness at the prospect of voting for Obama is almost a giddy experience.
Stephanie Akers and Taj Clinton have their share of laughs as townies and certainly know how to play them. And Darrin J. Mosley, Jr. as a young man filled with such innocent hope it almost makes you cry … because you know exactly what’s in store in eight short years.
But if the Great Pumpkin is getting you down, Front Porch Society is the perfect remedy. I mean sometimes – so suddenly!