Theater Review - Family secrets crash the party in The Nacirema Society

Money, power and scandal breed crazy coincidences in Pearl Cleage's latest play

Novelist/playwright Pearl Cleage didn't exactly restrain herself when she named her sparkling new comedy The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years, a title almost too long to tweet. Nevertheless, her play impresses as much for what it leaves out as what it presents in its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre.

For instance, Nacirema Society opens on young Gracie Dunbar (Naima Carter Russell), a broad, ironic smile on her face as she stands resplendent in a white ball gown. Her imperious grandmother and namesake Grace (Trezana Beverley) reminds her that she's wearing "the Nacirema White," one of six gowns worn every year by the debutantes of the Nacirema Society, a hoity-toity 100-year-old women's organization in Montgomery, Ala. Grace venerates the dress as the embodiment of the society's values of "honor, chastity and truth," virtues one suspects will each go violated by the comedy's end.

Cleage and director Susan V. Booth give the audience plenty of credit as the play tweaks the hypocrisy behind Montgomery's African-American snobs in 1964. Upper-class twits like Gracie extol the Nacirema White and describe themselves as "the crème de la crème of negro Montgomery" without anyone overtly questioning why successful black people should be so obsessed with whiteness. Cleage acknowledges the turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement without letting it hijack the play's humor. Gracie writes an oral history of the 10-year-old Montgomery Bus Boycott, illuminating her family's indifference to civil rights. But Nacirema trusts the audience to connect the thematic dots, without compromising its breezy tone.

Class underpins the play's primary conflict when Harlem legal secretary Alpha Campbell Jackson (Tonia Jackson), the daughter of the family's late, lifelong housekeeper, claims to be the illegitimate daughter of Grace's deceased husband. Alpha threatens to go public unless Grace accedes to her demands. The demands have admirable motives, so the blackmailing plot unfolds in a comedic vein. Alpha and Grace both lie and exaggerate in their first confrontation, with Grace boo-hooing crocodile tears and Alpha weakly suggesting that she has evidence to back up her claim.

Beverley evokes the stuffiness of Groucho Marx's longtime foil Margaret Dumont without losing sympathy for Grace, who clings to antiquated traditions even as her family life and the greater world transform beyond recognition. She finds an excellent comedic partner in Andrea Frye as Grace's equally rich friend Catherine Adams Green, who reluctantly agrees to be a go-between for Alpha and Grace. Frye has frequently played powerful, intimidating women on Atlanta's stages, but here she delightfully conveys Catherine's flustered dippiness.

A highly talented, multigenerational cast features a couple of odd players out. Kevin Alan Daniels plays Gracie's presumed fiancée, Bobby Green, as such a straightlaced, upstanding scion that the character seems unnecessarily dull. Meanwhile, Jasmine Guy plays a New York Times reporter staying under Grace's roof (revealing shades of The Man Who Came to Dinner). The role serves mainly to amplify Grace's fear of public humiliation and requires either a more broadly comedic touch or deeper characterization. (Guy's glasses and hairdo are pleasingly reminiscent of Liz Lemon, however.)

Other subplots include a romantic triangle among the younger generation that connects the Dunbars, Jacksons and Greens, yet doesn't feel overly contrived. Cleage and the Alliance production evoke the work of P.G. Wodehouse, Noël Coward or writing duo George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, in which the privileged setting, insulating powers of money, and terror of scandal seem to naturally breed crazy coincidences, like hothouse flowers. In The Nacirema Society, the influence of America's racial history enriches the screwball comedy, without ever turning into ballast.

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