Who has the right to a life's story the person who lived it, or the people who were touched by it? This is the central unanswerable question behind Bee-Luther-Hatchee, a play by Thomas Gibbons that has been popular in regional theatres, and has finally opened in New York at the Blue Heron Theatre. Intelligent and unsettling, Bee-Luther-Hatchee pulls off a nearly impossible trick: creating a situation in which two people, at a complete bypass, are both right and wrong at the same time.
The play focuses on young Shelita Burns, a New York publisher who has started a series of autobiographies by black people. Her latest, and most successful, publication has garnered much praise and awards, but seems to come with a bit of a mystery: the author is a recluse, and will only communicate via post. When Shelita goes South to give the author her latest literary award, she begins to unravel this mystery and finds herself caught in a moral dilemma and a professional trap revealing the truth might ruin both her and the books she publishes, but perpetuating lies will keep her readers in blissful ignorance.
The plot is intricately woven, but clever enough so that none of the twists seem forced. (Some are a little obvious here and there, but then again, not every twist needs to induce gasps.) After presenting us with interesting and sympathetic characters, Mr. Gibbons challenges us to choose sides when they come to their moral crossroads. Rather than a hero and a villain in conflict, we have flawed but recognizable people who tangle each other up in many webs of lies, but always act with the best of intentions. (I truly wish I could talk more about the plot, and analyze the script and the many issues Mr. Gibbons raises, but I'm afraid I've already given away too much. I'll summarize: The script is thought-provoking, it's insightful, it's occasionally a little slow, but it's ultimately very clever.)
The five actors in the cast do, for the most part, excellent work with the strong script. Perri Gaffney is riveting as Shelita, capturing both her strength and underlying insecurities as her carefully constructed world crumbles down. Gha'il Rhodes Benjamin is gently ethereal as the mysterious "smoke-souled" author, often seen in half-light, aware of the action but commenting only with a smile. Catherine Eaton is sassy and funny as Shelita's encouraging friend, and remarkably understated in a small role as a caregiver for the elderly. The menfolk fare less well in the script, and consequently, the two male actors have less meat to chew on: Thomas James O'Leary is appropriately innocent as a Southern gentleman trying to help (or hinder?) Shelita's quest, but Lance Spellerberg is awkward and lost as both a New York Times reporter and the author's employer. Roman Tatarowicz's set is perfectly evocative: multiple levels appear behind floating grey tulle that obscures the past and the truth, while the main action takes place on a severely raked base. The stage is small, but Mr. Tatarowicz's set puts every inch to its best use. Jim Pelegano's direction is smart and simple, keeping the many layers of the script in balance.
The debates that highlight Bee-Luther-Hatchee are clearly meant to be continued by the audience after the house lights have come up. Perhaps the finest compliment that I can give to Mr. Gibbons is to add that I could hear many people around me arguing both sides of the issues as I left the theatre.