Review: THE NACIREMA SOCIETY at Goodman Theatre

Goodman Theatre’s season opening production of Pearl Cleage’s play runs through October 15, 2023

By: Sep. 27, 2023
Review: THE NACIREMA SOCIETY at Goodman Theatre

It seems fitting that Goodman Theatre opens new Artistic Director Susan V. Booth’s inaugural season with THE NACIREMA SOCIETY, a play that’s about coming out to society. This Chicago premiere marks a continuation of Booth’s long-standing relationship with celebrated Black playwright Pearl Cleage. THE NACIREMA SOCIETY takes the form of an extended farce, following the incredibly wealthy Dunbar family in 1964 Montgomery, Alabama. In this light-hearted (if not always legitimately laugh-out-loud) comedic play, Cleage draws heavily from classic farce conventions. As the centennial event of matriarch Grace Dubose Dunbar’s beloved Nacirema Society, Montgomery’s organization for Black young women, dawns — and she awaits her own granddaughter Grace’s coming out — the antics become more and more heightened as family secrets come to light. 

Director Lili-Anne Brown guides a spectacular cast of nine through THE NACIREMA SOCIETY. While I thought the scenes were too numerous and some overstayed their welcome — particularly in the second act as audiences await the obvious pinnacle of a Friday night dinner on the eve of the big event — the cast understands their assignments well. This ensemble offers a master class in the school of farce: All the performers hold fast to the core principle of maintaining their characters’ realities and truths, even when they seem absurd to the audience. E. Faye Butler positively commands the stage as Grace Dubose Dunbar; she leads with power and overdramatic gestures. Butler has a larger-than-life, highly noticeable presence fitting of her character. It’s particularly joyful to watch her in cahoots with Ora Jones as close family friend Catherine Adams Green. Together Butler and Jones make the inner hand rubbings of their characters, particularly as they scheme over their intended match for their grandchildren Gracie Dunbar (Demetra Dee) and Bobby Green (Eric Girard), outwardly noticeable. The two are a riot, with Butler as Grace clamoring to assert her power at all times and Jones as Catherine just trying to keep it together as the farcical chaos reaches its peak. 

Grace and Bobby are foils to their grandmothers. Grace is the epitome of the young idealist; she’s fascinated with examining the progress of the Civil Rights movement ten years after the Montgomery bus boycotts — a social movement her grandmother has assiduously avoided — and she longs to run off to New York City to become a writer. Meanwhile, Green is a broken-hearted romantic, pining for the young woman he loves. Dee’s performance has a lovely buoyancy to it, which is complemented by Sharriese Hamilton’s more grounded performance as her mother, Marie. Hamilton plays Marie with sly annoyance at her mother-in-law’s actions; she makes the exasperation clear, but her performance is tighter to give the more outsized characters room to breathe. As counterparts to the incredibly privileged Dunbar family, Tyla Abercrumbie brings a centered presence as Alpha Campbell Jackson and Felicia Oduh is likewise nice as her daughter, Lillie. Although Cleage’s script sometimes marks the differences between the haves and the have nots in the play a little too clearly, Abercrumbie finds the truth in that sometimes wildly obvious contrasting. In the role of THE NEW YORK TIMES reporter Janet Logan, Jaye Ladymore is tasked with playing the straight woman in the play. She has fun with the sly, sophisticated journalist perspective. Shariba Rivers is spectacular as the Dunbar family maid Jessie Roberts. Though Rivers doesn’t speak a single word, her performance is a careful, delicious study in physical comedy. 

The production values are in keeping with Goodman tradition. Arnel Sancianco’s set design has some fanciful switch-ups between set pieces, and Samantha Jones’s costumes are decadent and colorful. Sound designers Stephanie Farina and Willow James have peppered the action with fun 1960s song selections. 

I think Cleage’s farce could use some tightening to keep the action moving more swiftly and allow more of the jokes to land in firmly funny territory. That said, THE NACIREMA SOCIETY is an enjoyable exploration of the antics of the wealthy Black Dunbar family and a keen examination of class dynamics. Above all, it’s a fantastic vehicle for the Goodman’s all-star ensemble. 

THE NACIREMA SOCIETY runs through October 15 in the Albert Theatre at Goodman Theatre, 1700 North Dearborn. Tickets are $25-$90.

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

Review by Rachel Weinberg

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