The Green Book Educates and Moves at The Ensemble Theatre

Timothy Eric (Dan Davis), Jarred Tettey (Keith Chenault), Christian Simon (Neena Molly Davis), and Rachel Hemphill Dickson (Barbara Davis) in The Green Book at the Ensemble Theatre.
Timothy Eric (Dan Davis), Jarred Tettey (Keith Chenault), Christian Simon (Neena Molly Davis), and Rachel Hemphill Dickson (Barbara Davis) in The Green Book at the Ensemble Theatre. Photo by David Bray
It’s important to remember that for 30 years’ time, and not that long ago, it was a necessity – a life-or-death necessity – to publish a travel guide that let African American travelers in on what places were safe to stop at when they were on the road – where they would be welcomed for lodging, where they could eat, where someone would sell them gas without harassment, assault or worse. That book was devised by Victor Hugo Green. It was The Negro Motorist Green Book, and one fictional safe haven listed among the pages of that book is at the center of Calvin Alexander Ramsey’s The Green Book, now making its regional premiere at The Ensemble Theatre.

The Davis family of Jefferson City, Missouri, has welcomed hundreds of travelers into their tourist home for almost two decades due to their listing in the Green Book, and the play opens on a day no different in that regard. Dan and Barbara Davis are hosting Keith Chenault, a Green Book salesman happy to turn a profit off Jim Crow, and a young couple, Cpt. George and Jacqueline Smith. On this morning, though, the household is buzzing about the arrival of W.E.B. Du Bois, who will be speaking at the local college that day where Barbara will be hosting the reception. As much as Barbara would like to focus on Du Bois and the reception, problems start to crop up.

Dan and Barbara’s daughter, Neena will be going off the college in the fall, and Barbara is worried. In the more pressing present, however, Neena is also growing frustrated, as she feels her parents pay more attention to the travelers the Green Book brings their way than they do to her. Keith is in and out of the house, on the cusp of what he perceives to be his greatest coup – a deal with Colonel Berryhill, owner of a chain of gas stations notorious for denying service to African Americans. And finally, there’s the arrival of a new, unexpected guest on their doorstep – white, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, also in need of a place to stay.

It would be impossible not to mention that other Green Book, not only because of the shared title, but because the film took home the Oscar for Best Picture last year amid fully justified controversy. (An article from Time stated, “Depending on who you ask, Green Book is either the pinnacle of movie magic or a whitewashing sham.”) Rest assured that titles aside, the stories are vastly different. Ramsey’s play predates the film and, more importantly, centers Green’s book and its importance into his story. This proves to be both a blessing and a curse.

As made clear by the title, Ramsey’s The Green Book is drawn from Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book. While the importance of the Green Book can’t be argued, Ramsey at times seems more concerned with singing its praises than the play’s characters, and in the process The Green Book has a tendency to slip into lecture territory, complete with block-text exposition delivered with a heavy hand.

With that heavy hand, it’s also unclear if Ramsey fully trusts his audience, as too many moments have quite the fine point on them. One (audible) example is when Neena, without question, welcomes Jacob Levinsky into her family’s home and offers him food. Where her parents hesitate, she acts. For Neena, acceptance is automatic, casual, and it’s a powerful moment, eliciting murmurs from the crowd. And yet, Ramsey chooses to state the obvious in dialogue. The audience was already there, and the time it takes to drive home this point (and others) a second or third time, can make the play feel longer than it is at its quite brisk 75-minute runtime.

These weaknesses are a shame because director Shirley Jo Finney has a knack for staging action and lot of talent gathered on stage for this production, talent capable of even more than Ramsey’s script offers them.

click to enlarge Jarred Tettey (Keith Chenault) and John Stevens (Jacob Levinsky) in The Green Book at Ensemble Theatre. - PHOTO BY DAVID BRAY
Jarred Tettey (Keith Chenault) and John Stevens (Jacob Levinsky) in The Green Book at Ensemble Theatre.
Photo by David Bray
Timothy Eric and Rachel Hemphill Dickson are the backbone of this production as Dan and Barbara Davis. They come across as the ultimate parental figures, with just enough quirks to keep them interesting – Dan’s bemused humor, Barbara’s nerves, and their loving, playful energy with each other. Christian Simon plays their daughter, Neena. She’s a good kid, and Simon is at her best when Neena is testing her boundaries (her parents may win the battle, but her strut across the living room says the war will continue).

As Keith Chenault, Jarred Tettey’s eyes shine with ambition for most of the show. Though full of flawed logic and an interestingly dangerous worldview, Tettey plays him with certainty, with the courage of his convictions, which makes it all the more powerful when it’s shattered. The image of Tettey, stricken at the end of the play, is a lasting one.

Kendrick “Kay B” Brown and Brianna Odo-Boms play the young military couple, George and Jacqueline Smith. We meet them travel-worn and tense. As George, Brown is a pleasant fellow, but full of worry about the future. Odo-Boms is overflowing with a standoffish attitude. She’s held together so tightly that you know it will be an acting treat when she breaks, and it is.

Lastly, John Stevens plays Jacob Levinsky. Jacob is a difficult character. He’s quite poised, and almost a little stilted, but he’s an empathetic character, and he handles a very heavy monologue quite well.

The set, designed by James V. Thomas with props by Winifred Sowell, is Southern hospitality and elegance personified, if you will, and it’s quite well-coordinated with Shannon Nichols’s costume designs. Nichols captures the spirit of the period through such distinct looks, particularly Neena’s youthful outfits and Jacqueline’s poised ensemble. Lighting designer Kris Phelps and sound designer Adrian Washington do some impressive work together regarding the storm brewing outside the Davis home throughout the production, and the union between sound and light comes together so beautifully in a chilling, climatic entrance toward the end of the play.

It should be noted that The Green Book is fairly predictable if just to note that even though you see what’s coming, it’s still an emotional, heart-wrenching punch to the gut when it happens. It’s a gut punch you may want to remember, because even though you may not find copies of a modern-day Negro Motorist Green Book at the gas station, the conversation hasn’t stopped.

The Green Book continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For more information, call 713-520-0055 or visit $26 to $57.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.