by Sheldon Gleisser
The play "Waiting to be Invited," which I saw Saturday night at Red Herring Theater (produced with Past Productions), was written by S.M. Shephard-Massat, a Georgia playwright who won the 2001 M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, given by the American Theatre Critics Association to honor an emerging playwright.
Late 1960s Atlanta: Ms Odessa (Julie Whitney-Scott) Ms. Louise (Demia Kandi) and Ms. Delores (Patricia Wallace-Winbush) all work at a doll manufacturing company. They board a bus driven by the avuncular Palmeroy Bateman (Harold Yarborough) that eventually picks up the rather confused Ms. Grayson (Josie Merkle).
The three women are going to meet their friend Ms. Ruth (Cathy Bean) so all four can test the recent Supreme Court ruling which declared segregated eating establishments to be unconstitutional. That they will do this by going to a "whites only" department store to eat lunch forms the beating heart of this rather excellent play.
As Ms. Odessa, Whitney-Scott is all take charge and bluster. The quieter, more understated performances of Kandi as Ms. Louise and Wallace-Winbush (who also directed) as Ms. Delores make the viewer think they are leaning on their more assertive friend for courage and resolve, but that may prove deceptive.
Yarborough is terrific as Palmeroy, the bus driving voice of quiet warning, a bridge between Ms. Odessa, Louise, and Delores and the world of white Atlanta, personified by Merkle's Ms. Grayson. If there is white privilege, Merkle personifies it effortlessly, sitting between the women as if she is one of them, except of course, that she isn't. Ms. Grayson is soon trumpeting her beliefs about what's best and right with an abandon the African-American women have only achieved in their dreams.
The journey to Ms. Ruth should be the moment of quiet before the storm, but as Bean portrays her, Ms. Ruth's reticence and barely masked fear serves only to betray fault lines, not only within these character's relationships, but within the characters themselves. They are preparing for an act of civil bravery. Whether you can truly prepare for such an act, or whether they will be reduced to frightened divers looking over the high board of history remains an open question.
Ms. Wallace-Winbush shows a deft hand with her actors, which shouldn't be a surprise as she's an actor herself. She also keeps things moving at a good clip. The slightly under two hour play seemed to go by in about fifteen minutes.
The scene design, by Michael Herring, mixes with Kurt Mueller's lighting and David Edward's sound to give the play an almost cinematic feel. We go from the women's locker room in the factory, to the bus (complete with moving backgrounds and clinking change used for payment) to a park bench outside the lunch counter. As a viewer, you not only always know where you're supposed to be, but you buy it all completely. Can you do anything on a stage you can do on a movie screen? Stay tuned, and break a leg.
"Waiting to be Invited" brings to life an episode of our recent past both shameful and triumphant and meets it with apprehension and optimism. Producing it in today's charged atmosphere is a necessary antidote to the racial invective once more hurtling through our culture, just barely masked as 'straight talk.' I say get on the bus and check it out.