As we gear up for the summertime Richmond Shakespeare Festival with classes and rehearsals (the first performance is June 12!), I thought it an appropriate moment to pause---and write about a show I've seen recently. Further, as our first season as a resident company in the new Richmond CenterStage is only 17 months away, it seemed an ideal time.
Right here in Richmond----On February 22 of 1960, some 35 Virginia Union and Union Theological Seminary students staged a sit-in at the lunch counter inside Thalheimer’s department store. They were subjected to every repulsive slur you can imagine, then hauled out into the winter streets to waiting paddy wagons and jail.
It is with no small degree of import, then, that not quite sixty years later, in 2009, one of the primary resident companies in this same building will be a black theatre company, the African American Repertory Theatre. (AART) When Richmond CenterStage opens in the fall of that year, AART will be there.
For me, nothing could serve more fittingly as a local beacon of hope for the ongoing challenges of human interaction. Imagine: within the very building where blacks were prohibited from enjoying freedoms as simple as ordering lunch, where they could not try on clothes in fitting rooms because of the color of their skin, a theatre company will become resident for the express purpose of sharing the stories of these black Americans.
Waiting To Be Invited then, by S.M. Shephard-Massat, (A Helen Hayes Award-winner in 2006 for her play Starving) shows promise, but it’s an admittedly problematic script. The first act is split between doll factory (in an employee's locker room) and a city bus. Three women (Diana Carver, Shaundra Patterson and Sharalyn Bailey, joined later by Kesha Afrika Oliver in a powerhouse performance) prepare to exercise their newfound civil rights to eat in a downtown lunch counter restaurant. It's 1964, and violence toward individuals who made these efforts was not uncommon. Arrests were still expected, despite the Civil and Voting Rights acts.
Perhaps it was meant to be indicative of the character’s state of mind, but this script moment felt like the author artificially creating material to avoid writing the actual sit-in. This would be the best grist for the drama mill, but the playwright stays outside on the curb. We are meant to see that the moment of entrance, of decision late in the play, defying the play’s title—as its resolution. But I still wanted to see the scene inside.
The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.He maketh me to lie down in green Pastures, he leadeth me
beside the still waters.He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of
righteousness for his name's sake,Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me….