The Allen stage of A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle is like a small, cozy stadium, with a round, rotating stage circled by seven banks of seats, in turn circled by an expanse of carpeted floor. The actors enter down aisles underneath the top seating rows. With high ceilings and cushioned chairs it is an intimate and at the same time elegant setting. The atmosphere adds an extra fillip of irony to the production of a play about four black women preparing to sit in at a "whites-only" lunch counter in 1961 Atlanta, especially when one of the women talks about her little boy getting pneumonia because to take him to a movie she had to carry him several flights up the unheated back stairs of the theater.
Unlike many other movies, plays and books about the Civil Rights movement, "Waiting to be Invited" doesn't focus on the headline figures and dramatic confrontations. Instead it shows four women preparing for the event, their personal lives and fears, drawing attention to the millions of people behind the scenes who make a movement and to the place of true battleground, inside us.
Sherry M. Shephard-Massat, in her first play, has captured the rhythm and style of southern conversation. This is probably as familiar to her as rain is to a Seattleite, since she based this play on her own grandmother's experiences and neighbors that she grew up with. Dialogue that could easily become shtick with less adept actors is instead rich and beautiful.
In the first act, Miss Louise (Demene E. Hall), Miss Delores (Cynthia Jones) and Miss Odessa (Ebony Jo-Ann) get off work at the doll factory, change into their best white dresses, and catch a bus downtown. Cheerful banter and insult humor is the tone of the entire conversation, including exchanges with the bus driver Pomeroy Bateman (Keith L. Hatten) and a Bible-wielding white lady (Jane Welch), who express both admiration and concern when they are told the trio's intentions. Woven through the party atmosphere is evidence of the omnipresent force of racism in the character's lives, from the white lady's anecdote of a white boy who beat up little black kids to Pomeroy maintaining his survival and dignity by the simple refusal to "spend my money anywhere I'm not wanted." The stage rotates round and round on a turntable set by Bill Curley, with sound-effects by bassist Reuben Radding and percussionist Brian Kirk creating a cityscape that adds to the entertainment.
In the second act, the three factory workers meet up with Miss Ruth, a pastor's wife, in a plaza outside the department store, and in the imminence of action darker emotions begin to surface.
Our two reviewers differed over Michele Shay's portrayal of Miss Ruth, the pastor's wife terrified over white retaliation and what a public confrontation might do to her social standing. Rango thought that Shay's character didn't seem as three-dimensional as the others and theorized that she lacked experience; but Shay is a Broadway veteran. Anitra's opinion was that Miss Ruth is, foremost, a plot device, designed to break through the veneer of ladies-day-on-the-town to the fears and angers underneath. She is fleshed out by the end of the play, even as the other three women who began as real-life working women chatting naturally together end up, in the final act, playing different aspects of the response to fear. Miss Odessa plays anger, Miss Delores falls apart looking for a leader, and Miss Louise takes on the mantle of courage and hope and becomes that leader.
Racism is still an omnipresent force in our lives; as homeless and low-income people, at least, we deal with it every day. The experience of Anitra, who is white, is not the same as that of Rango, who is black. But in some ways, all -isms are the same, racism and sexism and the classism that says if you haven't got money to spend here don't come into our neighborhood.
The struggle for justice still goes on in the lives of millions of people who have to face the same fears about the consequences of standing up and speaking up that Miss Ruth, Miss Louise, Miss Odessa and Miss Ruth do. The standing ovation that this play receives is not just for the courage of those four women and the others like them who won the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1960s. It is not just applause for our white liberal tolerance, for being better than our ancestors, for producing a play about black issues, with black actors and blacks in the audience, in a fancy theater that would never have welcomed such things in 1961.
The applause is appreciation for the writer's work of speaking the things we cannot speak for ourselves. In the crisis of the play, when fear and anger breaks out of hiding in an emotional storm, we can all recognize the terrors that stand in the way of intervening in a case of child abuse, police abuse, racial abuse, or just stopping to check on a homeless person who has his head down on a picnic table.
This is not only a play about an important moment of history. This is a play about us.