Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned
It had never occurred to me that it is possible to stage a bibliography. But that is essentially what Grif Stockley has done with his new play, “Truth! Reconciliation?” It runs at the Weekend Theater until April 11.
Though the play is short on plot and characterization, Stockley, a historian by trade, might be forgiven for these faults. In his playbill notes, Stockley writes that the script — based on his recent book, “Ruled by Race” — is “the painful conversation about race we have never had aloud in Little Rock.” Challenging words, those. But for anyone who cares to delve into Arkansas's history of slavery and Jim Crow, the play is an effective presentation of the past.
“Truth! Reconciliation?” is set in 2007, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Central High's integration. A five-member group gathers to talk about ideas for a commemorative event. Nate Abernathy (Alan Douglas), a well-to-do white attorney who had just started practicing in 1957, comes to the meeting with a checkbook and the idea that he will fund a noted black speaker. But Carla Scott (Mary Ann Hansen), the group's leader, has other ideas. To provoke Nate into spending his money differently, she invites Deacon Carter (Ebon Jones), a black Hall High teacher who had his dissertation rejected because it was too critical of whitey. Throw into the mix a white teacher at Central (Julie Flynn) and a black professor at Philander Smith (Eva McKinney) and the stage is set for an explosive conversation.
As the meeting progresses, Nate's surprisingly regressive ideas are challenged by Deacon, who believes Little Rock's whites are ignorant of Arkansas's long experience with racial discrimination. At this point the history lecture begins, with events presented in chronological order. The demagogical Gov. Jeff Davis emerges to recite from a pro-lynching speech he gave in the early 20th century and other figures dressed in period costume read from the ghosts of the past and the historians of the present. A projector screen is placed next to the re-enactors to display photos of the people they depict. Cited books are shown onscreen, too. Occasionally the commemoration group interrupts this procedure with arguments that transition into the next period of history.
The result is not a play so much as an acted seminar. Though Stockley has tried to impose personal tension between characters, his success is limited. As the performance opens, we learn that Carla and Deacon were once engaged in a fling before Carla called it off; this is their first meeting in a long time, and Deacon wants to know why he was jilted. Though the answer has some relevance to the play's broader theme, the pair's relationship has an inchoate quality. It is portrayed only at brief intervals, and it is easily forgotten during the much meatier historical scenes.
One might also object that the characters are not characters at all, but rather stand-ins for stereotypical racial opinions. Nate thinks blacks are lazy; Deacon thinks all whites want to keep blacks down; the Central teacher is naive about the history of slavery and professes outraged shock every time she hears about an Arkansas lynching. The inflexibility of the characters' opinions and their frequently unnatural mode of speaking — along with lines like, “Can we all agree that race is nothing more than a social construction?” — only reinforce that this is a lecture disguised as a play. The actors have done what they can with the material. Though Jones overacts Deacon's anger, Douglas gives a competent rendition of the old-school white lawyer. McKinney, in her first acting role, turns in the best performance; she convincingly delivers several impassioned speeches and plays the Philander Smith professor with a realistic tone.
No one would deny that Stockley knows his history, however, and on that front the performance is engaging. The stories the historical re-enactors tell are simply amazing. This is awfully important material, whether encountered through print or stage. Whether or not “Truth! Reconciliation?” is the step toward racial reconciliation that Stockley hopes for, it certainly makes a contribution toward erasing ignorance of the past. That in itself is a notable achievement.