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BWW Review: RIVER CITY Proves That Looking 'Inside' the Box Is As Important as Looking Outside It

At one point in Diana Grisanti's sharply written RIVER CITY, in its final weekend at Voices of the South, an older character challenges the "education" that a fourteen year-old black youth has received at St. Thomas, the Catholic-run orphanage in Louisville: The young man may know history from a white perspective, but does he know anything important about his own black heritage -- and does he know what's happening in 1968, as the black community plans a demonstration to protest the rehiring of a police officer guilty of harassment? (Yes, sadly, the times . . . they aren't always "a-changin'" -- sorry, Mr. Dylan.) I remember an instance when, as a white youngster in a rural town outside Memphis, I first heard the name "Martin Luther King." Our school bus had already run, and I was waiting for the bus of my best friend (who happened to be black) to drop him off so that he could rid himself of his books, change clothes, and come out to play. When he descended from the bus, I walked with him down the lane where he lived with his grandparents. I asked him what he had done in school that day, and he replied that he learned who the father of "his" country was. "George Washington," I interrupted. "No," he insisted. "The father of 'his' country was Martin Luther King." In just a few years, some great strides would be made; however, I am nearing seventy now -- and the ugliness of racism is still omnipresent. Not only does police harassment still dominate the news, but, with the OSCARS being broadcast Sunday evening, there is a planned boycott by a number of black actors and actresses over the lack of racial diversity among the major nominees.

As RIVER CITY begins, a very pregnant "Mary Christopher," the daughter of mixed parents (her father was black; her mother, white) is rummaging through a box that belonged to her late father "Edward." As her parents divorced when she was young, and as her time with him was limited (and she did more "talking" than "listening"), she finds herself inquisitive about him and his origins. Rifling through the box, she comes upon a "spider web coil," an old poster of "Cassius Clay/ Muhammad Ali," In and of themselves, these things "seem" entirely disposable, but an intrigued Mary senses that they are pieces that will help complete a puzzle. On leave from her teaching job, she is reticent to join her Hispanic mate "Javier" (a chef on the cusp of fame) as he plans to move to Kentucky. Understandably, tensions will develop.

It's at this point that Ms. Grisanti's play begins to diverge, as we see why these long-dormant objects are important. They may seem negligible, but we see their connections to persons who, though now dead and gone, were living, vibrant spirits. As we learn about them -- the abandoned, outcast (because of his race) Edward; the progressive nun who fought for him -- Ms. Grisanti seems intent on reminding us that, while it is important to move forward, it is equally important not to forget the past. Javier wants Mary to leave the box, to leave Louisville, to give Chicago a chance; but Mary can't be content until she faces the past, discovers her own heritage, and connects with her roots. Yet, the play isn't that simple: This situation finds a parallel when a son, seeing his father's business stagnate, tries to get him to "move forward." I don't want to reveal too much, because this play unfolds as a mystery, and that's part of the satisfaction of it all. The past is always being mirrored in the present; dialogue from one era overlaps with dialogue from another; characters from one era occupy the same stage with characters from another, constantly reminding us of our connections with those who have preceded us. It's a stimulating, exciting evening of theatre.

Director Alice Berry has made full use of the small space available at Voices of the South (located in the basement of First Congregational Church). Her blocking of the actors is thoughtful and creative: You listen to one set of actors talk -- and watch the others, for instance, glare in silence. (The ending of Act I leaves the audience breathless.) There's the effective use of sound (David Newsome), too, and lighting (Tiffany McClung): Just wait for the "rioting" in Louisville.

Ms. Berry's cast is strong. Noby Edwards' determined, anxious "Mary" is a sturdy heroine, and Matt Nelson's "Javier" is both excited (at the prospect of his burgeoning reputation) and committed as her sympathetic but impatient partner. Talented Annie Freres plants two feet firmly upon the ground as the spirited "Sister Alice," all too aware of young Edward's plight, as she herself remembers what it was like to enter the States from Italy -- and to find herself "out of place." Her "juggling of the rules" and willingness to use the system find us thoroughly in her corner as she tries to head off the smug young priest (Logan Bernard, in a "male is mightier than the female" role) who would gladly send Edward to a far state to avoid dealing with an integrated orphanage. Freres and Bernard, in fact, do "double duty," appearing in "the present" as a skype-savvy mother and a dorky clerk. They are versatile performers.

Due to the illness of one of the actors, two performers assayed the part of "Edward": MarQuez Pierce is a reflection of Ms. Edwards' "Mary" in his edgy, "just who am I?" determination; and, as the older version, Cameron Yates is a logical extension of the character (and he has a great explosive scene toward the end of the play). As "Whitney Deeley," a man bound by fealty to a dying business (yet keenly aware of the changes that need to be wrought in a like society), Darius Wallace is a forceful, social visionary. These three make strong impressions -- and manage to make the past come to life.

RIVER CITY, unlike most of the original works at Voices of the South, has had previous performances elsewhere. However, on the basis of what I saw tonight, I have a feeling that there will be many more to follow: It's a riveting, powerful piece of work. Through February 28..

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)