Memoir Tricks

 

In his cutting new play Bee-Luther-Hatchee, Thomas Gibbons raises probing questions about the human need to connect with art. But he also issues a warning about making assumptions when it comes to the artist’s intention. The pain of being tricked can be sharper than a serpent’s tooth.

In this Unicorn production, Bee-Luther-Hatchee means about the same thing purgatory means to Catholics. It’s also the title of the book within the play, a sharp but folksy memoir penned by a Salingeresque recluse named Libby Price (Lynn King), a 72-year-old African-American woman from the South. Her work is edited to great praise by Shelita Burns (Brigitte Barnett), who is also black and riding this literary coup across Manhattan. She and her publishing friend Anna (Alicia Atkins) toast Shelita’s success with green-apple martinis while a New York Times reporter (Charles Fugate) catches her in fame’s luminous glow, wooing her to say things she will regret.

Shelita has been communicating with Libby only through the mail. But after the book wins a prestigious literary prize, she decides to hand-deliver the award. Instead of Libby, she meets a charming and ambitious writer named Sean Leonard (Craig Benton). Throughout much of the play’s superior second act, Shelita and Sean volley conflicting evidence about race and literature and the fascinating ways they can come together — in a warm embrace or a bloody crash.

Director Mark Robbins does a beautiful job with Gibbons’ work, one that often contradicts itself on its way to being redeemed. The author can get preachy and victimy, as when he has Shelita essentially say that black men can’t get cabs in New York City because of people like Mark Twain. And he presents some rather facile arguments about the absence of the black voice in American culture. Just ask 50 Cent — or Suzan-Lori Parks, whose every breath seems to get staged at New York’s Public Theatre.

But Gibbons turns a phrase with amazing agility. Libby’s opening line — “I been a drifter all my life” — becomes the motto of other characters who learn that being adrift forces compromising situations. He shows how a word like resonate can do just that in the right context; so can niggers. It’s uttered only once but as a powerful exclamation point.

Jeffrey Cady’s sound and video design propel the play along a winding track that’s both literal and representational, and he throws in Moby samples for good measure. Atif Rome’s set is effectively sparse, and Julian Pike’s lighting attends to the various players in perfect ratios. Brad Shaw’s costumes span the last century in nice detail (with one unflattering exception, worn by Atkins in an early scene).

Lynn King, Brigitte Barnett and Craig Benton are smartly cast, giving their characters the “authentic voice” the author addresses throughout the play. There’s a moment when King and Benton first lock eyes that will make the most hardened soul well up. Atkins and Fugate, meanwhile, each play two roles. Her brief turn as a starstruck nun is too poorly written for any actor to play; his “hip” reporter so isn’t. But her Anna is well-crafted, and Fugate’s later role as a man in Libby’s life is tortured and moving — as is a great deal of Gibbons’ play.


Postscript: Now that Late Night Theatre has obtained the rights to The Santaland Diaries — apparently with good wishes from Cynthia Levin at the Unicorn, where it ran the last three Decembers — maybe a documentary about Late Night will end with something gay and Christmasy.

Aspiring filmmaker Pamela Butzbach has been recording several recent Late Night runs. Her movie about the troupe promises an uncensored peek inside the crazy-quilt creativity that crossbreeds, say, Brian DePalma’s Carrie with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Early on, the film seemed to be solely about Late Night regular David Wayne Reed, an approach that Late Night’s cofounder, Ron Megee, says ruffled a few feathers. “Some feelings got hurt,” Megee says. “I didn’t mind. Make it about Late Night, or make it about David. But show all of it, [because] everyone’s done so much.”

Butzbach says that Reed was indeed her initial subject, because he was the first company member she befriended. “He’s definitely part of this collective whole that totally amazes me,” she says.

“I’m a slut for publicity,” Reed says, “but even I wouldn’t go see a movie all about me.”

Megee says Butzbach’s crew has been so unobtrusive that he often forgets the cameras are there. “I know she’s got a couple fits of mine,” he says.

Butzbach works for Metro Productions, coordinating commercial and corporate projects, and her employer supports Butzbach’s moonlighting. That doesn’t mean she’s exempt from other projects. The night Stanford Glazer lost the mayoral election, she was hanging out with him and his supporters working on a pilot for a possible Comedy Central reality show.

Categories: A&E, Stage