Sometimes it’s not so bad to state the obvious. Maybe that’s because some things bear repeating.
S.M. Shephard-Massat’s “Waiting to Be Invited,” in its first local production, is a gentle play about the courage of four women who in 1964 decide to take a gigantic step forward — for themselves and for the country. The play wears its message on its sleeve, but the playwright’s deft handling of sharply drawn characters and her over-arching theme are impressive.
These are ordinary working-class women, but Shephard-Massat’s attention to detail yields memorable portraits for performers to sink their teeth into. The production at Just Off Broadway, directed by Warren Deckert with minimal sets, brings together some of the city’s most talented actors.
Even so, the Saturday performance seemed a little too loose-jointed. Overlapping dialogue, whether by design or simply because the actors were under-rehearsed, sacrificed some of Shephard-Massat’s language. Greater precision would have yielded greater clarity.
The two-act play unfolds simply. In Act 1, three African-American workers in a doll factory take a city bus to downtown Atlanta, where they will, thanks to the Supreme Court’s upholding of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, walk into a previously segregated department store and order lunch.
Ms. Odessa (Sherri Roulette-Mosley), Ms. Louise (Lynn King) and Ms. Delores (Aishah Harvey) talk among themselves as well as with bus driver Palmeroy Bateman (Harvey Williams) as they make the journey on a bus without air conditioning on a stifling summer day. Ms. Odessa has a combative attitude, Ms. Louise is the level-headed pragmatist of the group, and Ms. Delores is younger and more optimistic. Bateman, we gather, has seen it all as he becomes concerned about the possible reaction to the women’s assertive action.
Along the way, Ms. Grayson boards the bus. This white, eccentric minister’s widow, played with great comic flair by Marilyn Lynch, initially seems oblivious to civil rights issues but ultimately reveals a deep sympathy for what the three women are doing.
In Act 2, the three factory workers are joined by Ms. Ruth (Shawna Downing) outside the store’s main entrance as they muster the courage to walk through the door. Ms. Ruth is beset with doubt about the wisdom of the group’s defiant act because she assumes white racists will always find a way around the law. Ms. Delores, on the other hand, expresses a cheerful brand of courage: If they mess with us, she says, we’ll just sue.
Ultimately we hear accounts emblazoned on their memories of experiences living in the segregated South. Some of them are mundane — sitting in the blacks-only balcony of a movie theater, for example. But somehow that underscores the daily corrosive effects of living under American apartheid.
This company includes four of my favorite veteran actors — King, Roulette-Mosley, Lynch and Williams — and they don’t disappoint. Harvey chalks up another strong performance. Downing, in the first principal dramatic role I’ve seen her play, is charismatic and precise.
Let’s hope the actors will tighten up their execution as the show continues. They certainly have a good script to work with.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Waiting to Be Invited” runs through Jan. 31 at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. Call 816-226-8087 or go to justoffbroadway.org.