City Lit Theater Company

at Live Bait Theater

You can’t cram an entire novel into a play without making both look ridiculous–you choose what’s crucial and, out of that, what’s dramatizable. The adapter of Alice Walker’s 1976 novel Meridian made few such choices. Her 190-minute play is shapeless, exhausting, meandering, and uninvolving. Sometimes it moves so quickly, like a fast-forwarded film, that it makes no sense; sometimes, just as perversely, it’s slowed down until it makes no sense. This play jerks us along, asking us to feel unceasingly for characters who retain only a smidgen of the inner life the novel gave them. It’s tempting to say read the novel before you see it, but even that’s not enough.

It’s also sad that a lot of fine acting, by the City Lit’s Collective of African-American Theater Artists, is being hurried past or dragged out. But the actors–directed by Andrea J. Dymond and Arnold Aprill, who are able and occasionally inspiring traffic controllers–do their busy best to inject substance into the sprawl.

Alice Walker’s detailed work celebrates as much as chronicles the life of civil rights worker Meridian Hill–her dedication, patience, and much-tested integrity. But here we don’t get Walker’s voice, just her dialogue. As the remarkable Meridian reprises her life from 1955 to 1975 in clumsy and confusing flashbacks, she wanders from Chicokema, Georgia, to New York City, Atlanta, and across the south (though the script shows a capricious disregard for time and place). Caught between loyalty and betrayal, Meridian defines herself in response to the people she knows: her mother, a religious reactionary who’s unable to believe that voting is progress; her father, who watches in helpless fury as the Indian burial mound on their property is turned into a public park that blacks can no longer visit; an aunt who berates Meridian for standing out.

Among the events the adaptation rushes by before they can sink in: Meridian turns activist at her prim, assimilationist girls’ school; tries to tame a local “wild girl,” who then gets killed; and turns her anger into involvement in the risky voter-registration drives that swept the south in the 60s. But despite firebombs and police truncheons, Meridian refuses to kill, if not hate. She also gets pregnant, gives the child up, loses her husband, and has an abortion after she discovers she’s pregnant again. She’s too busy to wait for the handsome painter Truman, a boy she grew up with, or to know his heart. Truman gets trapped in a disastrous marriage with Lynne, a misery-mongering white girl who’s raped by Truman’s bitter friend Tommy Odds, a man who lost his arm to a bigot’s gun. Lynne’s racism emerges when she finds Truman with another white woman. At the end Meridian reconciles with Truman, and they continue to register voters–Dr. King’s dream has pulled them through when nothing else could.

A summary can’t convey the frustration I felt watching these truncated episodes, the swirl of subplots without subtext, the onslaught of unprocessed incidents that subtract from what went before. And it’s scary to watch the audience withdraw as it resigns itself to the impossibility of finding a narrative thread, to the dreary feeling that no event will matter more than the next and that nothing is at stake. Where Northlight Theatre’s From the Mississippi Delta, a work with similar themes, knew what counted in making us care, City Lit’s Meridian throws everything at us and expects us to sort it out.

Of course the good stuff gets buried with the rest. Keli Garrett, who did the adaptation, plays the complex title role with an assurance that clearly draws on the full novel, allowing us to savor at least the conviction behind her character’s changes. Ron Gilbert’s ineffectual, tragically blundering Truman drifts in ways that Meridian manages to avoid. Valerie D. Robinson’s unflinching mother skirts stereotype to suggest the matriarch who unintentionally makes her children grow by driving them away.

Clifton Williams incarnates danger as Tommy, a man whose injury unleashes a lifetime of rage against whites. As his chief victim, Natasha Lowe (a powerful actor in Big Game’s superb Women and Water) pulls out the stops to make Lynne’s disintegration clear. But without a shred of motivation, this situation becomes soap opera. Like much here, it never takes root.