Personal Demons

Florida Stage takes us on a journey somewhere south of the inferno

Bee-luther-hatchee (noun, African-American slang, 1920s-1940s): a far away, damnable place, the next station after the stop for Hell.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But in Florida Stage's intriguing new production, Bee-luther-hatchee, hell isn't the final destination. There's another torment ahead, so dreadful it doesn't even have a description, just a curious name.

Playwright Thomas Gibbons centers his tale on lovely, leggy Shelita Burns, a brainy, ambitious African-American book editor in New York with a burning desire to help bring the "excluded voices" of black America into print. She has made a name for herself by publishing the works of long-forgotten writers but now has been handed a career-making opportunity when an unsolicited manuscript, Bee-luther-hatchee, happens to arrive at her office.

The work is an autobiography of Libbie Price, an elderly, reclusive black woman whose authentic voice and rich though sorrowful life story in the South touches Shelita profoundly. She publishes the book, but Libbie refuses to step into the public eye, to be interviewed or photographed, or even to meet with Shelita. The book is a huge success, garnering a major book award and a spot on the New York Timesbestseller list. Shelita celebrates her success with a gal pal (Barbara Sloan) and entertains a handsome job offer from a powerful rival publishing house. But Libbie's hard-luck life has touched Shelita, herself abandoned as a little girl by her mother; the mystery of why Libbie contacted her specifically prompts Shelita to put her career on hold to locate Libbie. En route, Shelita encounters a white writer, Sean Leonard (Randall Newsome), in a hotel bar. When he questions her motives, Shelita remains undaunted, intent on her elusive quarry. Her trip down South takes more than one surprising turn that quickly leads her toward her own bee-luther-hatchee.

Gibbons's play takes on several weighty, complex issues, some sociopolitical (the colonization of minority culture by mainstream culture) and some philosophical (the nature of truth and authenticity). Gibbons is an articulate writer, and most of his intellectual agenda is handled nimbly. He also juggles two separate narratives: Shelita's increasingly bewildering search for Libbie, and the latter's complicated interracial private life in the South of the 1960s. The stories interconnect in unexpected ways. Using a cinema-like structure with several plot spins, Bee-luther-hatchee keeps you guessing but tends to lose its way before it's over. Libbie's story is rife with dramatic conflicts and clashing concepts, but Shelita's bogs down in mostly talking about them. The play suffers for this, as does the character of Shelita, who tends to get sidelined in the later going. Like a detective in a murder mystery, she has a dramatic function: to uncover the truth. But she also carries the emotional focus, as her troubled past and conflicted present are clearly established. To its loss, the second half of the play derails Shelita's emotional journey; what she learns from it is never explicated.

Gibbons is a white male author, which offers more than one irony here, since he has created a fully dimensioned character in Libbie while neglecting to do the same for Shelita. In fact, Gibbons seems to deliberately sabotage his own character. Shelita claims her search for Libbie is motivated by her desire to help black writers while denying that her childhood traumas might be involved. This denial and her narrow assumptions about race conflict and prejudice, especially in the play's second half, keep her more of a mouthpiece than a living character. It's clear that Shelita has some major blind spots in her otherwise highly developed perceptive abilities, but we never learn if she ever recognizes these or transcends them.

The result is a play that sets up compelling characters and situations only to end rather abruptly and less than convincingly. Still, despite its flaws, Bee-luther-hatchee is intriguing, engaging theater, the sort of challenging, issue-oriented entertainment that has been the hallmark of Florida Stage from its outset.

The acting ensemble is strong, with Karen Stephens in fine form as Shelita, an African-American take on what is becoming a modern character archetype: the work-obsessed, lonely career woman. Stephens does a good job of articulating Shelita's many emotional crosscurrents as she struggles with personal and professional demons. But the anchor of this production is surely Brenda Thomas's remarkable performance as Libbie, a plain-speaking woman in a plain cotton dress. Thomas's simple, direct playing style brings Libbie to complete life. This Libbie is so warm, so lifelike, that Shelita's passion to meet her is completely understandable. Stephens and Thomas are ably supported by Randall Newsome as Leonard and Barbara Sloan and John Fionte in multiple roles. Seret Scott, herself an accomplished actress, directs with a fluid, spare style, aided by Kent Goetz's screen-partitioned set and Jim Fulton's lighting, which allow for instant shifts from Shelita's story to Libbie's and back again. Credit also goes to Matt Kelly for his evocative sound design, from the first note of a mournful Delta blues tune to the last clickety-clack of a disappearing train, headed down to you-know-where.

 
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