The set up:
November 4, 2008, was a tremendous day for many Americans. The election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American President, was celebrated by people of all races, genders and ethnicities in this country. But there’s no denying that Obama’s election was particularly momentous for the black community in the States, a community who looked to Obama's victory as the start of some kind of redemption for America's original 400-year-old sin.
It was this community at that particular time that playwright Melda Beaty turned to when writing her play Front Porch Society, now getting its world premiere at The Ensemble Theatre. But it wasn’t the entire black community Beaty was interested in examining. Instead, she turned her gaze to the older female generation. Women who had lived through segregation and Jim Crow and who would’ve never believed that such a thing as a black President was possible in America.
Set on that historic Election Day, Front Porch Society introduces us to a group of mature African-American women in Marks, Mississippi, as they gather on Carrie Honey’s front porch to catch up, gossip and talk about the election. Everyone is feeling hopeful about the outcome, but Carrie’s personal history sucks the air out her ability to go along with all the excitement. In fact, she may not even vote at all. November 4, it turns out, is also the 41st anniversary of her son Ricky’s suspicious death while he was in police custody, and the tragedy has left Carrie bereft of optimism or faith that things can change.
Grief is set against celebration, conflict against comedy, and community is what holds it all together in this eminently thoughtful and satisfying play.
Set designer Larry Wesley gives us two identical wood-frame porches flanking two modest but nicely maintained homes as the backdrop for all the action of the play. One belongs to Carrie (Michele Harrell, pent up with pain and anger), the other to her rumor-believing, chatterbox neighbor, Winnie (played with amusing kookiness by Tamara Siler.)
When Carrie wakes to find that 95-year-old, hard-of-hearing but sassy-as-the-day-is-long Ms. Martha (a comedic and profound Gwen Harris) was dropped off on her porch hours ago by her niece, we get a sense of the kind of bonds this community has. These are women so close that no one need ask if it’s okay to come over. No one need worry whether she’ll be taken care of.
Beaty smartly uses these women’s trust in each other to bring us into the fold. We watch Carrie and Ms. Martha interact, and we can’t help but feel protective of them both. Ms. Martha may be physically frail but she’s feisty, drinking her own homemade cough medicine (Jack Daniel's is her secret ingredient). She proudly sports an Obama ball cap and is excited to cast her vote later in the afternoon. Carrie, on the other hand, dons a black housecoat in mourning for her son, busying herself with chewing tobacco and watering her plants in order to distract herself from the day.
We want Carrie to care about the election, to care about Obama’s promises, such as his pledges to heal the racial divide and get the boys home from the Iraq war, but we understand her impediment. After all, it’s hard to argue with a grieving mother as she declares, “They’ve been killing black boys in the U.S for free for years and ain’t nothing Obama can do about it.”
As two more Obama-supporting friends join the women on the porch, Sister Stallworth (a capably sunny Rachel Hemphill Dickson) and Alberta (terrifically mouthy Dannette McElory-Davis), Beaty crafts a nice mixture of good old-fashioned girl chat humor while naturally tackling some distinctly weighty issues. Intermixed with smack talk about some poor woman’s cooking and dealing with Winnie’s intrusions, the ladies touch on voting rights, racism, fake news, poverty and faith, including Obama’s own controversial former pastor. What makes it all work is that Beaty never lectures or heavy-hands her points. Instead, the women weave in and out of conversation, get distracted, change course and come back to big issues again, allowing us to eavesdrop on these seemingly spontaneous moments.
And you better believe there are moments in this play. It may be Election Day, but life goes on in this town. Winnie brings word of an upsetting vandalism that affects Carrie greatly. Mailman Towner (Jason E. Carmichael) delivers a mysterious package for Carrie that may have something to do with the letters she used to write (but has given up on) concerning her son’s supposedly accidental death. And high school senior Terrance (Kendrick “Kayb” Brown) fires everyone up with his excitement about the vote, his first ever.
Throughout it all, Carrie’s grumpiness (belying pain) balloons and comes to a head when we finally learn the details of her son’s death in an emotional scene that resonates all too clearly with our present-day situation. Director Eileen J. Morris, who provides such a superbly effortless flow for most of the play, here chooses to underpin Carrie’s climactic revelation with melodramatic music, telling us how to feel instead of trusting that Beaty’s words and Harrell’s performance would be enough. The same is true for another tragic moment later in the play. Music stands in for the power of raw drama.
But these are quibbles in a production that mostly takes the subtle road to engaging our hearts and minds. It would have been easy for Beaty to include a victory scene with the ladies, but instead we witness Obama’s win via video projection as he gives his election night speech. Again, a smart move by a playwright who knows when to pull back and when to go for it. We reunite with the ladies the day after, celebratory, hopeful, full of happiness as they once again drop in on Carrie.
Is Carrie changed by it all? Did the election make anything right for her? Perhaps there is an opening to help heal. To trust that what she has to say will finally be heard. We see a glimpse of her resolve returning. Beaty gives us that and then allows us to wonder. With hope. Just as her characters do.
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The Ensemble Theatre isn’t known for producing many world premieres, but Artistic Director Eileen Morris came across the play and felt it fit with the company and the season. We’re grateful for it. It’s an exciting thing to have Houston be the launching pad for new work, especially work that’s not only timely but thoughtfully insightful and funny to boot.
I look forward to reading about productions elsewhere in the States and thinking, you’re welcome…we saw it here first.
Front Porch Society continues through June 4 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For tickets, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $30 to $50.