16 July 2005: Gibbons, Bee-luther-hatchee

New Century Theatre, Theatre 14, Smith College. Directed by Jenny Lord

An enterprising African-American editor publishes a hugely successful autobiography by a seventy-two-year-old black woman, Libby Price, only to discover that the author is really a middle-aged Caucasian man who has adopted the persona of his white father’s half-sister, Libby Price, in order to tell her story with conviction.

It’s a most interesting premise, because it raises the questions of authen­ticity, authorial voice, cultural origins and their effect on knowledge of the self and others. The editor, Shelita Burns, a Princeton graduate who while an under­graduate had a life-defining vision of herself as a finder and publisher of books by fellow African-Americans whose voices had effectively been silenced, is completely won over by Sean Leonard’s adoption of the voice of the woman who came to live with him when he was a ten-year-old boy and his widowed father. The first act ends with Sean (called “Shay”) entering the hotel room of Shelita, who has traveled to the South in a vain effort to find Libby Price and give her the important award her book has won, and announcing to her “I am Libby Price.” The second act is given over almost entirely to a long scene, intercut with staged flashbacks upstage behind a scrim, in which Shelita and Sean combat one another, and acting in excruciating and very interesting human terms the debate that the play was designed to stage. The first act had included a scene between Shelita and a New York Times reporter who is writing up the success of the book and who tries to break through Shelita’s reserve — she is protecting the identity of Libby Price, who in an exchange of letters following the submission “over the transom” of “her” manuscript, has explained how important it is to her to keep her identity a secret from the outside world. In a gross miscalculation, Shelita, in the South and frustrated by her inability to find Libby Price in the nursing home where Sean Leonard has deceptively planted her, answers a cell phone call from the reporter and says that she has met Libby Price, when in fact she has not. And then Sean Leonard arrives at her hotel room and declares himself. And so Shelita is suddenly faced with the crisis of her life, and Sean Leonard is the willing antag­onist.

The scene that occupies all of Act II, with intercut retrospectives behind the upstage scrim, allows Sean to challenge a number of Shelita’s most fervently held beliefs about the history of slavery in this country and about the integrity of the black experience; the drift of the play has the effect of strongly implying that slavery and its aftermath, along with the continued alleged “silencing” of the slaves and their descendents, is a vastly more complex and muddled thing than Shelita has been able to understand. The case in point is Sean’s own connection with the story of Libby; as a boy, once his father had traced Libby and invited her into their home as a “housekeeper,” Sean finds the opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversations his father has nightly for some months with Libby. Out of what he gleans from these conversations, Sean is able not only to reconstruct Vivie’s life but to tell the story of it in her own voice. And so Sean’s argument is that, despite not having been a member of the black race and participated in its cul­ture, he learned enough, and sympathized sufficiently with the life and hard times of his father’s half-sister, to be able to write the authentic narrative that he did. Shelita accuses him nonetheless of having perpetrated a hoax; she is almost won over by his arguments, but in a shocking turn-about she suddenly decides to telephone the New York Times reporter and reveal the hoax, as she sees it, an action that will leave her career in shambles. But the revelation will allow her to salvage her dignity. She precipitates her terrible scene of rage in which Sean tears up much of his manuscript — he has brought with him to the hotel room the manuscript, the typescript, the galleys, and the page proofs to prove he is the author with whom Shelita has been dealing. The play ends at the conclusion of this self-destructive act, in which Sean pathetically tries to put the pages of his proof back in order.

There is more. In the process of editing the manuscript and readying it for publication, Shelita has confided in “Libby,” investing a great deal of herself in the enterprise and making Libby into a figure who comes to stand for the mother Shelita lost as a child. We see the parallel between the two central characters, each of whom has lost the mother who was central in their lives — Sean, a mother who sat on his bed every night and read him stories, arousing his desires for fiction and literature in general and whom he lost at a critical age. And so we come to understand how each of these two very different characters has invested some central and essential part of their selves and lives in an energizing, valid­ating, and restorative myth.

Shelita’s myth is about the purity and validating energy provided by her participation in the black experience (she cites the validating experience of having read Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk); having been raised upper-middle-class and attended Princeton, a bastion of white culture (we are invited to under­stand), she has discovered in the supposedly authentic black experience set down in her own words by Libby Price, a wonderful if only vicarious way of particip­ating in that experience. And so she is rudely and enragingly cut off from Libby Price as her embracing mother by Sean Leonard’s cruel revelation, and finally all she can think of to do, to retaliate, is to reveal what she insists is a hoax: a prof­ound­ly self-destructive and ironically disenfranchising act that surely will ruin her career.

Sean Leonard’s myth, in great contrast, is about the validating power of the creative imagination. A true artist should not be limited by his own personal experience; he should be able to enter into the heart and mind of a tenth-century English peasant (Sean’s example) or of a black woman raped by her white employ­er, or of anyone else. The problem here, for Thomas Gibbons’s play, is that Libby Price is not just anyone else, but his father’s half-sister, with whom he feels a special bond — a bond that compensates him for the terrible loss of his own mother; for Libby while she lives in the house becomes like a mother to him. And so in the complex calculus that Gibbons invites us to make, telling Libby’s story for her is Sean’s way of vicariously investing Libby with the power of story­telling that Sean’s dead mother once wielded. Actually, Gibbons doesn’t make as much of this calculus, and of the wonderful analogy it establishes with the calcu­lus in which Shelita finds in Libby a “mother” who can tell the story of the silenced blacks, as he needs to have made. I have worked this out by talking it over with a friend who saw the play with me and letting it simmer in my mind for a day or so (it is Sunday evening as I write, having seen the play the night before).

And yet these meanings are there, if not all sufficiently well articulated. This is a very ambitious play that strives for much and achieves a good bit of what it strives for. It could benefit from some rewriting to draw out the analogies more skillfully and overtly. Or it may be that a more skillful director could’ve made more of them. Perhaps.

It could also benefit from a change of title. No one who hasn’t seen the play can make anything out of “Bee-luther-hatchee.” Is it a veiled reference to some Reformation subject? Is it about farmers and chickens? Turns out, it is an imagin­ary place one step further from Hell, to which black parents threaten rebellious children to be sent. Apparently it is to be taken as an example of a cultural code to which whites are not privy. But Gibbons doesn’t make nearly enough of it to mount it as the title of his play. Once you know what it means, you still can’t figure out why it was made the title. Am I missing something?

All the same, a stimulating and engrossing play, though slightly marred by the performance of the actress who played Shelita, Maggie Rush Miller — so named in the bios, but named Maggie Rush in the dramatis personae. She was in her third performance (the play opened last Thursday night) and was still not sure of some of her lines. One sometimes wasn’t sure if it was the character paus­ing to think or the actress pausing to retrieve a line from her uncertain memory.

Fortunately these occasional lapses did nothing to disconcert Steve Brody, a fine, authentic actor who played Sean Leonard (he was the odd character looking for a room to rent in the earlier The Underpants and was last season’s Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner). His angry tirade at the end of this play was a stunner to watch and completely convincing, though at the very end somewhat handicapped by the too-quick transition wrought by the playwright from incoherent rage to the attempt to salvage the manuscript.

Of similar high quality was Joan Valentina’s Libby Price. Gibbons has to make it clear fairly early (though some of us remain a bit skeptical) that there is, or was, a real living Libby Price. Valentina’s lovely voice, clear yet resonant, and her way of emphasizing certain keywords in her speeches as their cadences rose and fell, made me practically fall in love with her on the spot. For all the debate the play raises about authentic voice and how it may or may not attach to auth­entic person, this character was proof to any challenge: a lovely, beautifully crafted performance.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book