Stamford Theatre Works, Stamford
“Bee-Luther-Hatchee,” the powerful drama now at Stamford Theatre Works, focuses on the African-American experience—not inappropriately, since February is celebrated as Black History Month. But “Hatchee” is a good deal more than that. The questions which lie at its heart deal not only with racism but with writers’ ethical dilemmas—and ultimately morality itself.
Playwright Thomas Gibbons has fashioned the piece exquisitely, creating a story-within-a-story, a mystery within an enigma, a clever hall of mirrors—a tale which unfolds like the petals of a flower. Here is a white man writing about the black experience—as he creates a story of a white writer dealing with a black experience.
The play opens with a bright young publishing editor, a black woman, who is celebrating the recognition given a book she nurtured. The book? “Bee-Luther-Hatchee,” of course. That title is a folk expression black people have used since early times to describe the last stop on the train, the stop after Hell, an imagined Utopia. The book, ostensibly, is the memoir of Libby Price, a poor black southern women, of her marginal life as a drifter. Shelita, the young editor, has never met her writer, as they have communicated only through letters, but she knows the real thing when she reads it. That the book would become a best-seller and an award-winner is no surprise to Shelita.
“Hatchee” poses two tough questions: First, does a white writer have the prerogative to take on the African-American world? Can that writer ever know what is in the heart of a black woman? Strong arguments can be made for opposing sides. There are those who say that the outsider can never understand or write meaningfully about another group. Yet, if that were true, writers would be severely restricted, limiting writers and even historians, for example, to their own time and place. But the second issue—whether an author has the right to present a semi-fictional work as a personal memoir—is, in my view, unethical and quite probably illegal.
While the piece lends itself to a talky debate, Gibbons has created such an ensemble of sharp, dimensional characters exchanging vibrant dialogue that the play never falters. Director Patricia R. Floyd has assembled a letter-perfect cast, welding them into a flawless ensemble. Melanie Nicholls-King, in the lead, tends to go over the top, as she exudes passion, and toning down would be all to the good. Yet she is an exciting young actress, well supported by M. Drue Williams, Patrick McNulty, Simon Feil and Sydney Stone. Even the design team is inspired, with Holly Rihn’s flawless costumes, David Esler’s fine serviceable set, and Aaron Meadow’s just-right lighting.
In all, “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” is a play which incorporates substance, style, and entertainment all rolled into one. Catch the show before it closes on February 17.
-- -Irene Backalenick
Feb. 6, 2008