by Hugh Hunter
“Bee-Luther-Hatchee” now running at Stagecrafters, 8130 Germantown Ave., is a problem play, a genre largely created by Ibsen and Shaw in its modern form. Some problem plays feel static, more interested in generating discussion than in creating drama. But the better ones manage to do both.
“Bee” belongs on the list of successes. Playwright Thomas Gibbons is a lifelong Philadelphia area resident. For the past 20 years, he has been playwright-in-residence at Interact Theater, whose mission is to develop local talent and which has premiered much of Gibbons’ work.
“Bee” is about the different perspectives blacks and whites have about the meaning of race in America. The central character is Shelita Burns, a modern African-American woman in her early 30s. She launched a niche publishing industry dedicated to lifting obscure literary works of black women into the public consciousness.
“Bee-Luther-Hatchee” is the title of the memoirs of Libby Price, 72, who gives a poetic account of her traumatic life as a black woman in the South, a self-described drifter with a “smoke soul.” (“Bee-Luther-Hatchee” is where you have to get off the train if you miss the last station stop called “Hell.” a place so strange it even scares the devil.)
Though the book becomes a best-seller, Libby remains a mystery. She only communicates by mail, secludes herself in a nursing home and will not permit any photographs or interviews. But Shelita is so troubled by the memoirs that she feels compelled to travel to North Carolina to track down the author.
Last season at Stagecrafters, Barbara Mills directed a fine revival of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” George Bernard Shaw’s charmingly oblique attack on capitalism. She shines here as well. Together with set designer Scott Killinger, Mills pre-opens with a silent slide show of eight African-American female writers. (I was not familiar with any of them).
With its simple props and dramatic lighting, the production slips dream-like between the past and the present. There are many fine performances. Libby (Vanessa D. Ballard) emerges from the mists of her book to lay bare her torment. We also meet haunted southerners like Robert (Edward G. Marcinkiewicz) and Sean (Paul McNair).
Tiffany Barrett plays Shelita, and she creates a character with unifying traits. Shelita is continually angry about racial oppression, but at the same time she is vaguely aware of her own neediness and ultimately open to the suffering of others.
Most of Gibbons’ plays concern the issue of race. “Bee” may be his best work (certainly his most personal as the play is also concerned with what it means to be a writer). Gibbons does not take sides on the racial question. “Bee” is delightfully free of polemics, and even when the play turns to formal debate, it still retains an aura of dramatic mystery.
“Bee-Luther-Hatchee” will run at Stagecrafters through Feb. 9. Reservations available at 215-247-8881.