It's so rare when a new play makes an impression that when it does, you feel like you're walking on air. Pearl Cleage's romantic comedy, The Nacirema Society, in its regional debut in a scrumptiously detailed production from Ensemble Theatre, makes you giddy. It's a singular pleasure. There's no doubt that Houston's fall theater season has opened with a bang -- and a laugh.
What gives this lighter-than-air play such reverberation is that we've hardly ever seen Cleage's subject on stage. That she delineates it with such wit, charm, and substance only adds to the enjoyment. Her characters are upper-crust African-Americans in 1964 Montgomery, Alabama. The Dunbars and the Greens are doctors, lawyers, college-educated, successful, and proud of it. They've been pillars of society for decades and plan to stay that way. They've earned it. As the TV Jeffersons would say, they've moved on up.
When was the last time this social stratum's been given its due? Maybe The Cosby Show from the '80s, but even the Huxtables, a peg or two down the social ladder from the Dunbars, didn't have a maid or chauffeur. In the world of Nacirema, it's as if Philip Barry (Holiday, The Philadelphia Story) has moved in next door. After years of kitchen sick drama, addiction, and tragedy on the stage, we're primed to finally meet the rich and famous. It's refreshing, to say the least, and, under Ensemble's sure stage wizardry, immensely funny.
Matriarch Grace Dubose Dunbar (Detria Ward, in a wickedly hilarious portrait that falls somewhere between Auntie Mame and a vaudeville Medea) oversees the 100th anniversary of Montgomery's prestigious Nacirema Society with its swanky debutante ball. Nacirema (American spelled backward, in case you wanted to know) is the creme de la creme of Montgomery African-American society. Grace runs the gala with the precision of a drill sergeant wearing dress gloves. Nothing will go wrong, as long as she presides. She wouldn't stand for it, and nobody would dare counter her commands.
Naturally, her granddaughter Gracie (the effervescent Candice D'Meza) will lead the cotillion, on the arm of her high school flame Bobby Green (Derrick Brent), the most eligible boy in town, and Gracie's already slated to attend the prestigious woman's college where all the Dunbar ladies have been schooled. Then it's off to medical school. Bobby's mom and Grace's best friend, Mrs. Green (Joyce Anastasia, in delighted befuddlement), is atwitter with the dynasty soon to be consecrated.
The wrench that Cleage cleverly throws into Grace's plans is threefold. Gracie has no desire to be a doctor -- she wants to be a writer, and with her heart set on Manhattan's Barnard College, she anxiously awaits her acceptance letter. She can't wait to move to the big city. Second, she's not at all interested in Bobby, nor, nicely plotted, he with her. He's found the love of his life, Lillie (Florence Garvey), who just happens to be the granddaughter of the recently deceased Dunbar maid. Already we know that Grace will not stand for this, not at all. We envision her gloved hand shooting out, calling a halt to this nonsense with that deep-dish voice. Third, Alpha (Bebe Wilson), the maid's daughter, has arrived in town to settle her mom's estate and shows up at Grace's well-appointed house with a bombshell confession, trailing with it a nice little blackmail scheme.
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On top of all this confusion, there's a reporter from the New York Times (Angel Henson Smith) who's come to document the gala, and who previously wrote a scathing article that had mocked the ladies of the South, i.e. Grace, as terribly outmoded. Gracie's mom Marie (Andrea Boronell) stays calm and cool throughout, and we see where Gracie gets her resolve, although her character doesn't have much to do. These various plots and plans interweave with mastery, each building upon the last. Though things get serious at times - Gracie is working on an oral history of the historic Montgomery bus boycott -- there's always Ward to snap a line reading back into comic shape, or Anastasia to nip at the sherry and bounce off the furniture like a tipsy billiard ball. Anastasia's formal dinner gown, all bow, will keep you laughing long after the curtain falls. (The crisply ironed period costumes by Macy Perrone, elegant satin wraps and colorful afternoon tea dresses, deserve their own accolade.)
Thanks to the sympathetic direction from Eileen J. Morris, who keeps the mood air-borne, Cleage's comedy is as warm as a Southern evening. Its humor wraps you up in a loving embrace, as it's all about family -- even though fathers are conspicuously absent. As in the fairy tales Gracie loves so much, everything works out all right in the end, and we bask in the play's moonlit maternal glow and laugh with these indelible characters. Every now and then this tired world needs a gentle prod of sweet romance. Nothing wrong with that.