SPLIT IN THREE
****½ ( A )
SHADES OF GREY
In 1969, in suburban Pennsylvania, I was an awkward 16-year-old, facing my first year of High School, obsessed about being drafted in two years. I had a single (that is ONE) African American classmate with whom I was friendly, and the facts of the Civil Rights struggle were as alien to me as the rich and varied epithets my grandfather used to describe all the folks moving into his rapidly changing neighborhood.
In 1969, in rural Mississippi, dirt-poor folks were up in arms about the “gummint’ FORCING their kids to actually rub elbows with “those animals.” At least that was the view of the south from my safe enclave 1,000 miles away.
In 1969, it had been 15 years since the Supreme Court’s “Brown vs Board of Education” ended legal segregation, and many (most?) Southern States, including Mississippi, were dragging their heels in implementing the ruling. So, in 1969, in the aftermath of “Alexander vs. Holmes Board of Education,” the Supreme Court ordered schools to desegregate, not with “all deliberate speed,” but “immediately.”
Welcome to the Parsons’ ramshackle homestead, held-together with barbed-wire and prayer, home to two sisters, Nola, a maid at a local motel and Nell, a stay-at-home divorcee. Because this is a play, they are on different sides of the integration debate, though they have more in common than the political realities of the time. Nola sees “them” as people, carefully motivated by a childhood experience with a lynch mob. Nell, filled with the vitriol of her creep of an ex-husband, cannot see past a person’s skin.
Nell is, however, a kind person, as evidenced by her “wooing” of a stranger who keeps calling the (I hesitate to call it) house and not talking. Her curiosity and gentleness brings the caller to open up, and it is revealed that their father, who abandoned them decades ago, went on to desert a second family in Chicago, and the caller is a previously unknown half-sister, Penny.
When Penny comes for a visit, and it is revealed she is half-black, Nell’s kindness snaps shut with an audible clang, and the play becomes a semi-thriller — how do we keep Penny safe from the rampaging mobs within shooting distance, and, while we’re at it, do we really want to keep her safe?
As you can see from this simple synopsis, this play is a contrived construct, a carefully arranged dialectic with characters taking opposite sides in every disagreement. And every subject is a black-and-white dichotomy — rich/poor, educated/uneducated, young/old, racist/not, black/white, north/south, urban/rural. A simple synopsis would lead you to think that Daryl Lisa Fazio does not believe in “Shades of Grey.”
But, guess what! This is a play, not a synopsis. And the experience of the play is, surprisingly, a celebration of the “Shades of Grey” that get lost in any conflict, in any politically-based argument. Penny isn’t black — she is half-white. Penny is more aware of being a victim of sexism than racism. And she wants nothing to do with the political upheaval that threatens to approach the Parsons home. Nell may close herself off to Penny, but she is quick to defend her when things get dicey. Amateur lawman Tuck Tackett is an ignorant redneck bigot until he actually talks to Penny. Nola may have liberal tendencies, but she’s also a hometown girl who loves her friends and neighbors. Well, she tolerates them.
More to the point, Ms. Fazio gives us enough “back story,” enough character-driven dialogue, enough idiosyncratic diversion from our expectations of what the contrived characters would be, that they all come alive to such a degree. that I was hoping for a “what happens next” coda. Or even a sequel.
And, when all is said and done, all the disparate characters make an unexpectedly united front and decide to take action that may not (or may) be in their best interest.
I liked how Courtney Patterson (Nola) and Rhyn McLemore Saver (Nell) came across as real sisters, how there was a family bond there even when they were at their most contentious with each other. I liked how simple aggravations were punctuated with sighs and eye rolls more often than with dramatic outbursts. I liked how Falashay Pearson (Penny) quickly fell into the “family,” exhibiting some of the same quick-to-anger, quick-to-forgive traits of her half-sisters. I liked how Travis Smith made Tuck more innocent than ignorant. And I liked how the sisters rallied to provide a stable haven for neighbor boy Clifford (Elijah Marcano) after his own parents became, well, incapable of parenting.
I may have been a little less enamored of some of the technical aspects — a character reading a book outside at night (even before the porch light is turned on), a 15-second (mostly silent) Act II scene that required a roll-on set piece, an old truck in the Up Left corner that seems abandoned even with fresh tires, a cyc backdrop that never shows a convincing night sky. I loved the run-down look of the house (set by Jamie Bullens), but couldn’t help thinking that the inside layout made little sense (no room for indoor plumbing, for example).
All this being said, this was a compelling, often funny, ultimately rewarding piece that goes a long way in bringing this volatile moment of history to vivid life. Ms. Fazio has created a family that seems real in spite of being overly contrived, and put them in a stew of a plot peppered with the perfect flavoring of dialogue, incident, and surprise.
It is, in effect, a colorful recreation of a moment when Shades of Grey were becoming singularly rare.
—Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #Aurora #SplitInThree)