Bourbon at the Border

Victory Gardens Theater

Pearl Cleage’s Bourbon at the Border, now receiving its Chicago premiere in a nearly flawless production at Victory Gardens, is a well-constructed play with sympathetic and believable characters, fluent dialogue, a good balance of humor and pathos, and exceptional use of foreshadowing. The mildly bawdy comedy of the first act contains undertones both subtle and clear, so that at intermission someone remarked, “Oh, I hope nothing terrible happens to these nice people–but I’m sure it’s going to.” That sense of foreboding is reminiscent of the Goodman’s 1999 production of Floyd Collins, about a man trapped in a mine. During an evening entirely occupied with rescue efforts, the realization dawned slowly but inexorably that there was going to be no rescue. Cleage and director Andrea J. Dymond effect a similar paradoxical result in a play that’s much less obviously about disaster.

And yet, with all these strengths, the evening comes to an unsatisfying end. The problem seems to be a central one in serious theater: one person’s tragedy is often another’s melodrama. Someone betrayed in a marriage embraces Medea’s murderous revenge more readily than a person without that experience, who may consider all that shrieking and child slaughtering somewhat over-the-top. The leap of imaginative sympathy required of every audience member at every performance can be a hop or a high jump, depending on how close the auditor is to the characters and situation and on how much of a springboard the playwright provides.

So whether the climactic speech in Bourbon at the Border seems a bit much depends in part on how easily you can imagine that encounters with the law in America involve torture and rape meted out on the basis of race–which in turn depends largely on whether you’re black or white. Even whites fully prepared to concede the truth of the experience may resist iteration of the details, just as non-Jews who are far from Holocaust deniers nonetheless can think of ten thousand things they’d rather hear discussed. But for the culture to whom the tragedy happened, talking about it is both validating and healing.

That, in fact, is the play’s topic. May Thompson’s husband, Charlie, comes home after 30 years of hospitalization for a mental disorder. Though still a bit shaky, he finds work with Tyrone, boyfriend of May’s best friend, Rosa. Tyrone and Rosa are a lighthearted pair, but May and Charlie are dead earnest: his illness, and the whole shape of their lives, grew out of their work registering voters in Mississippi in 1964, during Freedom Summer. (The play takes place in 1995.) Neither May nor Charlie can bear to talk about the specifics of that experience–until it’s too late.

The story May finally tells is shocking in two ways. To the characters (and by extension, to other African-Americans) the shock is one of recognition, a confirmation of what they knew all along about racism and its expressions. But to a white listener (at least this one) the shock is alienating: the response is not to feel empathetic horror but to withdraw, squirming.

May’s speech is also difficult to absorb–and rings melodramatic–for reasons of form. Cleage simply does not write in the tradition of irony. She disdains distancing devices, instead presenting bald-faced truths and requiring hearers to deal with them. As an artistic method, though, direct engagement has been in eclipse for much of the past century. Audiences accustomed to ironic distance as a means of managing encounters with unspeakable horror are understandably thrown when it’s missing–when, instead of peering through a glass darkly, we see face-to-face. May’s speech has the utter directness of the “Attention must be paid!” line at the end of Death of a Salesman, but her subject is less easily absorbed than the suburban life, and tastefully disguised suicide, of Willy Loman.

There are certainly worse things to say about a playwright than that she’s heir to Arthur Miller, whose own plays have been known to derail from an excess of moral certainty. Like all social realists, Cleage confronts the private consequences of public actions and the public results of private damage. Admirably, she calls everyone–characters, audience, society–to account. Does refusal to answer her call, to find her drama persuasive, represent refusal to accept responsibility? Or is it just that the unvarnished truth–about anything–is simply no longer the language we speak? Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman’s play about the Chilean fascist regime, evoked something of the same reaction: yeah, right, torture is bad; so what’s new? Playwrights who proffer more than the audience can take in risk having their tragedy become our melodrama.

Perhaps the pivotal speech is delivered at too high an emotional pitch, though if so it’s Dymond’s only directorial mistake. Velma Austin as May builds relentlessly from a mutter to a howl, ending with an accusatory “Where the fuck were you?” that can be heard on the next continent. Was there a way to present this speech quietly, so that its loathsome substance could slip into the audience’s undefended ear like the poison that killed Hamlet’s father? Or doesn’t it really matter how you administer poison?

In any case, except for the last ten minutes, this play is accomplished and even inspired: Cleage can make a Jesus-and-Moses joke from act one resonate in the final tragic scene. Likewise the production shows the touch of a skilled and sensitive director. Dymond evokes marvelous seriocomic performances from all four players, including E. Milton Wheeler as Charlie as well as Cheryl Lynn Bruce as Rosa and A.C. Smith as Tyrone–both roles for which “supporting” is a misnomer. Mary Griswold’s set leaves something to be desired: it’s dull when it isn’t being misleading–the bridge visible through May’s apartment window looks confusingly like the San Francisco Bay Bridge instead of the link between Detroit and Windsor (the “border” of the title). But Patti Roeder’s period costumes are terrific: Rosa’s multicolored, multilayered Dramatic Fat Lady outfits are enough to make all of us who used to wear them wistful for their return.

Trying to determine whether the sudden collapse of a top-notch production reflects a weakness of writing or direction isn’t a matter of affixing blame. Rather it’s a way of exploring the problem of communicating in a divided society about issues of race and racism. Pearl Cleage is a superb chronicler of that problem, even as she grapples with it herself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.