Playwright: Alice Childress
At: The Artistic Home. 1376 W. Grand Ave. Tickets: $28-$32. Runs through: Dec. 17
The year of our story's setting is 1918, in a sleepy small town on the coast of South Carolina, where Miss Fannie Johnson serves as landlady to Mrs. Lula Green and adopted grown son Nelson, and to Miss Mattie and young daughter Teeta. The United States is at warNelson is enlisted in the army and Mattie's husband in the Merchant Marine; in their absence, the womenfolk are left to eke out a cottage-industry living.
A newcomer to this all-female community is the reclusive Miss Julia Augustine, affianced to a tradesman for a decade, their marriage prohibited by law. Julia, you see, is African-American, and Herman, white, of German parentage.
Long-term interracial cohabitation mirroring marital domesticity was not an uncommon practice before legal impediments thereto were lifted, but to generations still harboring first-hand memories of slavery, such arrangements were often regarded with suspicion on both sides. Julia and Herman dream of migrating north but, today, the latter will fall prey to an attack of influenzaillness rendered fatal by his kin's delaying medical attention, fearing public disapprobation at the discovery of his illicit bride-to-be.
Despite significant writing credits, Alice Childress' steadfast refusal to compromise in her depictions of injustice lurking in the shadows of our nation's history has resulted in a half-century of drama students imbued with the erroneous impression that the sole African-American playwright previous to August Wilson was a one-play-wonder named Lorraine Hansberry. Audiences in 1966 may have been ready for Herman's mother spewing forth racist epithets belying her patrician affectations, but they balked at hearing those whom she abused engage in offensive diatribes directed at likewise marginalized minorities.
The Artistic Home has displayed a welcome willingness to recognize this all-but-unknown author's significant contributions to the North American literary canon, however. Although Childress' script, by virtue of its period, could have succumbed to heavy-handed melodrama, Cecilie Keenan's direction keeps the action in this meticulously crafted production flowing smoothly and effortlessly, while an ensemble of marathon-sturdy actors deliver emotively nuanced performances, enhanced by Joseph Cerqua's wistful incidental music. They all remind us that tragic tales of love thwarted by filial obligation and societal pressure in an age characterized by pessimism, xenophobia and divisive unrest have not diminished in their timeliness.