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The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of their First Hundred Years

a World Premiere
by Pearl Cleage

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 3872

SHOWING : October 20, 2010 - November 14, 2010



Every year since Emancipation, the Nacirema Society of Montgomery, Alabama introduces six elegant African-American debutants to a world of wealth, privilege and social responsibility. This year, at its 100th anniversary, with young love brewing, old flames simmering and national media attention on hand. . . what would dare to go awry? A sparkling new romantic comedy.

Pearl Cleage, award winning playwright of Blues for an Alabama Sky and Flyin’ West, and New York Times best-selling author of Oprah book club selection What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, invites you into this glamorous world where folks still dress for dinner. For the ladies of the Nacirema Society, bus boycotts and freedom marches don’t hold a candle to the importance of making the perfect entrance… or plotting the perfect blackmail.

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Holding Back History for a Cotillion
by Dedalus
Friday, November 12, 2010
Disclaimer: The performance being reviewed was the last preview, though, IMHO, the show was “ready for prime time.”

When I first heard of the premise of Pearl Cleage’s “The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years” (and don’t you just love that title?), I had a few misgivings. First, I had a lot of problems with Ms. Cleage’s earlier work, “Flyin’ West,” which I found to be filled with cliché and short-changed male characterizations. Second, though I was aware of an “African-American High Society” in the south, I had little interest in them, considering their wealth the result of exploitation of fellow African-Americans, and their pretensions to “society” an embarrassing (and shallow) mirror-image of the (to my mind) equally embarrassing (and shallow) mainstream (that is, white) cotillion / debutante set. Setting the play during the height of the civil rights struggle would, in my expectations, underscore the hollowness of these people.

However, the result was a surprisingly pleasant and likeable romantic comedy, due primarily to Ms. Cleage’s honest affection for these characters, the actors’ charm and ability to get “under their skin,” and the production’s attention to detail and depth.

Like the Horizon’s “Night Blooms” reviewed earlier this month, it purports to look at the civil rights movement through the lens of a particular family’s experience. In this case, the family in question is the Dunbars, a wealthy family preparing for daughter Gracie’s 1964 Montgomery Alabama “Coming Out” party and expected engagement to fellow society scion Bobby Green. However, Gracie has other plans – she sees Bobby as more of a brother than a potential mate, and she also would much rather move to New York and become a writer. In addition, Bobby has fallen in love with fellow medical student Lillie Campbell and wants to forego a lucrative family practice to open a clinic in poverty-stricken Mississippi. Toss in a family skeleton, a cynical reporter, and a half-baked blackmail plot and the stage is set for incident, reversal, and conflict that honestly lets us wonder how the course of true love (and cotillion planning) can possibly run smoothly.

Trezana Beverly (who gave one of the finest performances I ever saw as the “Lady in Red” in Ntozake Shange’s 1975 “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf”) grounds the cast as matriarch Grace Dunbar. Every inch the society widow, she is bound and determined to see her granddaughter Gracie (a radiantly wonderful Naima Carter Russell) marry the “right” man and follow in her footsteps. She disassociates herself completely from the civil rights struggle -- on the bus boycott, she blithely comments that “They got what they want;” after all, why should she care about the bus when she’s got a chauffeur to take her where she wants to go? But she is completely bound up in her own little world, and can’t understand why this young generation would want anything else (“Selma doesn’t have cotillions!”).

Bobby Green (Kevin Daniels) is terrified of his own grandmother (Andrea Frye) and does not want to admit he is in love with Lillie (Karan Kendrick), pretending to go along with the engagement to Gracie, just for a little while longer. Meanwhile, Lillie’s own mother (Tonia Jackson) is not above stooping to a little manufactured family scandal and blackmail to help pay for the rest of Lillie’s education.

I could go on with all the myriad plot and character threads, but, the more I describe them, the more is evident Ms. Cleage’s skill at weaving a tapestry in which every element is perfectly in place, perfect for its place. Yes, we could indulge in a little cultural smugness to condemn the shallowness of Grace’s aspirations, but Ms. Cleage won’t let us. She has created a roster of un-shallow women who shatter our preconceptions and make us rethink why we would ever condemn them in the first place. Yes, a history of wider import is going on outside their mansion’s well-polished door, but, as has always been true, personal and family aspirations will always trump “bigger picture” issues. This is why “Night Blooms” succeeded so well, and why this play succeeds as well.

Designer Peter Hicks has created an attractive set, more museum than lived-in home, but so “right” for the Dunbar family (at one point, someone even comments about how “out of place” a scrap of paper is on the floor). I can’t imagine the smallest speck of dust to ever be allowed to rest for more than a minute or two on any polished surface.

More important, though, the production collects the finest actresses in the Atlanta area and lets them do what they do best – inhabit people with an intriguing story to tell. In addition to those cited above, the cast also includes Jasmine Guy as the reporter, Chinai Hardy as Gracie’s mother, and Neda Spears as the maid, Jessie. The entire cast melds beautifully, and to watch them at work is to watch a true ensemble in action.

So, I’d like to take this opportunity to cordially recommend for your consideration, “The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years.” It’s a reminder that you have to get your own “house in order” before you fix what’s wrong with society. It is a pleasant diversion before you write your next angry “Letter to the Editor” (you, know, the one you’ll get around to writing after you get the laundry done, the homework checked, the spouse’s latest crisis resolved, the household budget repaired, etc etc etc).

-- Brad Rudy (



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