Bee-Luther-Hatchee, Northlight Theatre. “Is the writer more important than the words?” asks playwright Thomas Gibbons in this folksy, precious examination of race relations and cultural covetousness (the title refers to a place worse than hell). Shelita Burns is a successful publisher with an award-winning hit–a memoir by the elderly Libby Price (Penelope Walker), who was raised in the jim crow south. Shelita’s interest in the book is painfully personal, so a revelation from a white man named Sean Leonard about the book’s real author cracks her sense of self wide open.
Credit Gibbons for telling a story at least as old as Cyrano in a way that’s timely and probing, especially in director Debra Wicks’s well-paced, elegant staging (Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s multilevel set is gorgeous). But the play is clumsily structured–it’s essentially one act disguised as two, vaulting between Shelita’s journey and Libby’s prose and delivering only a feeble punch to contemporary race issues. (See Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter for a devastatingly acute treatment of modern racism.) Still, the second half unleashes some real power when Shelita’s anger at Libby and Sean explodes. “It’s not your history,” Shelita scolds Sean, verbalizing a sentiment that seems selfish and increasingly moot in our multicultural universe.
Lawrence MacGowan is excellent as Sean, whose confidence Shelita puts to the test. But Shané Williams’s earnest performance as Shelita feels unnaturally choreographed, as if she were emoting by numbers.