Theater Review - Night Blooms evokes thorny dynamics of Civil Rights Movement

Margaret Baldwin's play succeeds with familiar material

In the history of the American Civil Rights Movement, "Bloody Sunday" usually refers to March 7, 1965, when white police officers used tear gas and violence to drive demonstrators from the Edmund Pettus Bridge back across to Selma, Ala., disrupting an attempted march to Montgomery.

Horizon Theatre's world premiere play Night Blooms takes place in Selma a couple of weeks after Bloody Sunday, on the same day that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led another, ultimately successful march from the Alabama town to the state capital. It's helpful to know some background of the Selma campaign going into Night Blooms. At the time of the play, the Selma natives and visiting activists didn't know the worst of the violence had passed, so the threat of disaster hung in the air.

Atlanta playwright Margaret Baldwin developed Night Blooms through Horizon's New South Play Festival. The family drama evokes a thrilling historical turning point, even though the action doesn't exactly break new theatrical ground.

At the Stafford household, genteel matriarch Lucille (Jill Jane Clements) seems scarcely aware of the social tempest outside her door. Instead, she's in a tizzy that her late mother's prized night-blooming cereus appears about to open its petals. Lucille arranges a late-night "blooming party" and requests that her longtime African-American housekeeper Geneva (Marguerite Hannah) work on her day off. The Staffords don't know that Geneva's son is risking his safety to join the march. Given the potential for bloodshed, Geneva brings her adolescent daughter Raynelle (Brittney London) to the Staffords' house.

The Staffords' grown siblings, Selma socialite Ruth (LaLa Cochran) and Unitarian minister Clayton (Harrison Long) represent two different approaches to Southern progressivism. Ruth's husband, a pediatrician, works at an African-American clinic and has integrated his private practice. She reveals that her racial tolerance has limits, and when her daughter Lucy (Bethany Anne Lind) invites Raynelle to play upstairs, Ruth reacts with outrage that an unspoken, seemingly arbitrary code of conduct has been violated. Cochran presents a mother so protective of her daughter that she doesn't realize she's a segregationist when her own family's involved.

Lucille calls Clayton "the prodigal son," since he moved to Baltimore and began supporting the cause of social justice. Clayton's justified opposition to Jim Crow racism gets mixed up with his feelings about his Southern family, and his unannounced visit leads to inappropriately harsh confrontations with his parents. He's the kind of liberal whose righteousness shades into arrogance — he even presumes to lecture Geneva about the cause. Long conveys Clayton as so uncomfortable in his parents' house that he's almost unbearably antsy. It's hard to tell whether the role's a true crusader or simply an overbearing know-it-all.

Directed by Karen Robinson, Night Blooms' fractious clashes unfold awkwardly, like second-hand Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. The quieter moments of bonding and reconciliation prove much more effective, beginning with a funny scene in which young Lucy shares cigarettes with her terminally ill grandfather (Tom Thon), even though neither are allowed to smoke. Lucy makes openhearted overtures of friendship to Raynelle, whom London portrays as wary and more conscious of their color divisions.

As Geneva, Hannah conveys the balancing act of African-American servants of the era. She responds politely to Lucille's instructions without being either servile or openly resentful, although clearly she's more concerned with weightier matters than cooking cheese straws. Hannah also puts steel in Geneva's rejoinder to Clayton, explaining that she must protect her job in the name of providing her children with a better future.

Night Blooms touches on the variety of fraught racial dynamics in the small-town South of the time period. It also obeys the law that any play that evokes the Civil Rights Movement must at some point include the performance of a freedom song. Baldwin's dialogue doesn't exactly avoid clichés, but the roles' speech patterns suit the era, and Clements reliably finds the musicality in old Southern sayings.

Night Blooms places credible characters against a fascinating historical backdrop, but tends to draw our attention toward the dramatic contrivances at the expense of the well-observed texture. The action practically grinds to halt in order to milk all the symbolic value possible from Lucille's night-blooming cereus. Can't a flower be just a flower?

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