Theater Review - The South in black and white

Horizon plays reveal insights and imperfections in New South

For six years, Horizon Theatre’s New South Play Festival has put two full productions on the playhouse stage, and the pair has always been, to put it bluntly, a “white play” and a “black play.” Over the years, the “black play” has proven the more intriguing script of the annual repertory, almost without exception.

New South discoveries like A Hole in the Dark and Negro Dance Lesson explored rich, complicated themes while taking stylistic chances that made the other half of the bill, however cleverly written, seem safe by comparison. Horizon may be a “white” theater, but its New South Play Festival may be Atlanta’s most consistent and high-quality venue for works by rising African-American playwrights.

Horizon has scaled back this year’s festival by presenting Margaret Baldwin’s Her Little House on weekends and Addae Moon’s Notes from the Bottletree on “dark nights” (Mondays, Tuesdays and some Sundays). More than usual for the festival, both plays feel like works in progress. But true to form, Bottletree by Moon, who is African-American, commands more interest.

In Her Little House, aspiring writer Louise (Agnes Lucinda Harty) visits her 85-year-old Aunt Salt (Edith Ivey) for an oral history interview to collect background for a novel. Aunt Salt (short for her last name, Salter) isn’t exactly closed-mouthed: Louise asks her full name, and her answer veers off on multiple tangents, concluding with a diatribe about “that mess” Catholics made of Africa.

Baldwin amusingly measures the generation gap between the two women when Louise’s questions attempt to force Aunt Salt into liberal/feminist slots (“Did you feel oppressed by your choices?”) But when Louise asks about Aunt Salt’s marriage to her late husband, the elder woman becomes evasive and defensive, with a note of snippiness injected into her perfect Southern manners. When Salt, in turn, asks about her niece’s personal life, Louise reluctantly reveals enormous academic and financial difficulties.

House takes place in Virginia, but could be any “Grandma’s house” below the Mason-Dixon line. Details like the coasters for the iced tea glasses will make Southerners in the audience flash back to the Aunt Salts of their own childhood. The play’s action stays in proportion to its realistic setting: Louise and Aunt Salt suffer not from melodramatic tragedies, but commonplace sadness.

But the play’s low-key tone makes for dry drama. A scene in which Louise wordlessly sets the dinner table feels right at home, but isn’t exactly thrilling. (It also doesn’t help that Her Little House may be the most boring title since Bailey White’s novel Quite A Year for Plums.)

Harty — an unquestionably vivacious, bright-eyed actress — may be too polished for the playwright’s closely observed naturalism and Louise’s bouts of depression, and overplays the character’s passions and angst. Ivey portrays Aunt Salt with plenty of warmth and humor, but seems to give the same dotty, scatterbrained quality to every role she plays.

More thematic connections link House and Bottletree than a usual Horizon Festival double feature. Both plays involve artists struggling with self-expression, relatives reuniting after long absences and the repercussions of a man’s death.

Notes from the Bottletree depicts Atlanta photographer Jules (Shontelle Thrash) preparing for both her make-or-break exhibition and the visit of her ex-con brother, Red (Johnell Easter).

Bottletree’s best moments capture the tension and masculine posturing between Red and Jules’ boyfriend, Che (Neal Hazard). At their first meeting, knives literally come out, and in every subsequent confrontation, they test each other while they gradually bond. A card game becomes a charged battle of wills and strategies that’s so effective it could possibly stand on its own.

But as the play’s main character, Jules proves a problematic protagonist. She’s stuck trying to write the notes for her photo exhibition, and her worries reflect the modern pressures of art and race (the gallery owner frets that Jules’ work “isn’t post-black enough”). Thrash’s monologues about photography feel like self-conscious lectures, and she’s much more comfortable in scenes involving humor or her character’s relationships with Che and Red.

Jules still struggles with unresolved conflicts involving her father — a photographer, Vietnam vet and practitioner of obscure rituals. But the father issues stand too far removed from the main action. Perhaps we need to see him in flashbacks to bring these ideas into sharper focus.

Characters in both House and Bottletree conceal hidden grief. Jules refuses to visit her father’s house, while Aunt Salt avoids listening to the “Humming Chorus” of her once-beloved opera, Madame Butterfly. Both plays tease out the secrets at the final, cathartic revelation, but each feels contrived. They unfold that way because plays usually unfold that way.

With its knotty threads of the past tugging on the present, Bottletree needs a bit more work than House’s more conventional nostalgia and female bonding, but it remains the more urgent and compelling work. Both writers show keen insights into Southern speech patterns and family dynamics. With Baldwin’s and Moon’s plays, Horizon’s new play festival continues to map out the New South.