BWW Review: MISSISSIPPI GODDAMN at Pyramid Theatre Company
In times of great distress, fear can make people do terrible things. It can push wives to turn on husbands, mothers to turn on children, and neighbors to turn on neighbors. This idea surrounds Mississippi Goddamn, a new play by Jonathan Norton that received its first official staging at Pyramid Theatre Company last night. Norton's new play is a force to be reckoned with, as he looks into the fear and actions of one family living next to Civil Rights Activist Medgar Evers while investigating what acts of betrayal lie under one household. Although Mississippi Goddamn could benefit from slightly tightening technical and delivery aspects, Norton's story and sincere performances from the entire cast drive the idea of fear and betrayal home to create a wonderfully tense and exciting performance.
At the top of the show, the setting is June 1963, Jackson, Mississippi inside the Monroe household, which lies down the street from the home of Medgar Evers. Husband Robert-Earl Monroe (AaRon Smith), wife Gertie Monroe (Farica L. Robertson) and neighbor Chuck (Edward M. Barker) have all had enough of white people terrorizing especially their neighborhood because of Evers' presence. They want Evers to move away and have tried everything including offering to buy his house among other things. These three actors have the job of bringing the realistic adult perspective on what is happening and how to stop it. Especially good is Robertson whose portrayal of a protective housewife who has had enough of many things takes the audience through the more complicated aspects of the plot with genuine emotion and rage.
Also present are daughter Claudette (DeShana Langford) and her husband Jimmie (Antonio Woodard) who are told by Claudette's parents that they must take her younger sister Robbie (Victoria O'Bryant) back to their home in California for the summer. Robbie has recently gotten involved in with the NAACP and has just returned from some time in jail, which her parents strongly disapprove of, thus they want her in California. This other half of the cast get to dwell more in the lighter side of issues, and one standout moment is in act one when all three actors rapidly shoot comebacks at each other in the living room. The energy soars and the pace is much quicker than the heavier scenes before and after.
Norton makes an interesting choice to set act two four years before the actions of act one and have the actors playing Claudette and Jimmy now playing Medgar and Myrlie Evers. This decision explains much of what has been alluded to in the first act and allows the play to be more focused on the actions of the family as opposed to activism of Evers. Langford and Woodard easily transition between the parts and show off their range well. Yet, much praise needs to be given to O'Bryant who has the difficult task of playing a hardened and traumatized sixteen-year-old activist in the first act and a naïve twelve year old in the second. O'Bryant delivers a forceful performance where she must progress backwards along the plot while revealing the fearful effects of betrayal and youth realization of parental flaws.
Fear itself is everywhere in the show, and not only through the familial interactions and confessions. The seventh character of this show is the old telephone center stage that brings so much pain and torment to the family. Every time the phone rings unexpectedly or door knocks the cast and audience jump. These unexpected moments happen quite often throughout the show and both aid and detract from the story. There were certain tense moments where I longed for the characters to just pick up the phone to cut the tension of what was said seconds prior. Other times, it seemed like the ringing or knocking slowed down the interactions between the actual actors on stage. Additionally, some of the telephone cues came at odd times, which only took the cast and audience out of the moment on stage.
Luckily, the plot doesn't entirely rest upon voices on the other line and even is very comical at times. Brining the comedic relief is Barker as the neighbor Chuck who always has one-liners to throw and Langford and Woodard whose trouble in paradise story lightens up the plot during heavy times. Yet, even during some tense moments there is humor to brighten the story, which allows the audience to connect more with the characters.
Pyramid Theatre Company's dedication to producing a new work every summer along with a classic (this year's is The Amen Corner by James Baldwin) is something that should be cherished in the Des Moines theatre scene. Mississippi Goddamn is another success for Pyramid's executive director and director Ken-Matt Martin and for playwright Jonathan Norton who is also Pyramid's Randy E. McMullin Artist-In-Residence this summer. The show opens up a new perspective of those close in proximity to activists during the Civil Rights Movement in addition to the harrowing effects of breaking trusts and rules within a family. Even at the end of the show when all had been revealed, I found my mouth wide open long after the house lights came on. All I can say is remember Jonathan Norton's name because there is no telling where this play will take by storm next.
Pyramid Theatre Company
June 27 - August 6, 2017