Some theologians have said that evil is a problem of the imagination, but in the theater, the opposite is often true. A number of its evils stem from a distinct lack of imagination. The inability of some to re-envision plays traditionally produced with white casts has long resulted in unequal access to stages for African-American actors.
Two regional productions in recent years—and one show currently running—have admirably confronted that particular form of racism, tacitly highlighting its conspicuous absence of imagination.
Dramatically speaking, the stakes are usually fairly low for TheatreFest, NC State's annual feel-good summertime repertory series. That assessment bears rethinking with its current production of WALKING ACROSS EGYPT.
Like Little Green Pig's productions of Our Town in 2013 and The Cherry Orchard in 2006, this show features an entirely African-American cast. All three productions are thought-provoking interpretations of texts previously taken by most, if not all, as tales from a different race.
1987's Walking Across Egypt was N.C. author Clyde Edgerton's second published novel. Like its predecessor, Raney, it focuses on downhome, mostly good-hearted—and predominantly white—North Carolinians as they try to come to grips with a time of change in the South. Under Rachel Klem's direction, this useful production clearly demonstrates that Edgerton's story, deftly adapted by Catherine Bush, transcends ethnicity.
Vividly portrayed by professor emerita Patricia Caple (who was still noticeably slow on cues during our matinee), Mattie Rigsbee, Egypt's central character, is a no-nonsense 78-year-old country woman of the old school: devoted to her Southern Baptist church, her fussy 54-year-old son, Robert (the able John Rogers Harris), and her daily soap opera, All My Children, which she watches on the sly.
When we first meet, empty nest syndrome has made a sudden, if late, appearance. For all her life, attending to family and friends has fed what Mattie calls a "river of love ... a waterfall to Heaven." But now, with no extended family to care or cook for, Mattie believes her metaphorical waterfall has dried up.
Edgerton places in her path two less-than-promising prospects—a no-count stray dog and a juvenile delinquent named Wesley (an unseasoned Vincent Bland Jr.)—about the same time that her preacher, Rev. Bell (Jade Arnold) sermonizes from the Book of Matthew: "Inasmuch as ye have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
The comic details of Mattie's ensuing human reclamation project sets her at odds with nosy neighbors Alora and Finner (a rewarding Barbette Hunter and Demond McKenzie), her sanctimonious preacher and her son. If the script is swayed by sentiment, it still provides its characters no convenient solutions. Finally, this production demands that we scrutinize the barriers, in all of our imaginations, which prevent any group of actors from laying claim to any human story.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Imagine that"