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Ethics, Ethnicity, and Privilege: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

Tamarra Graham as Shalita Burns meets, in her mind's eye, Leilani Smith and Jon Sprik as the characters in the memoir she is reading:

Tamarra Graham as Shalita Burns meets, in her mind’s eye, Leilani Smith and Jon Sprik as the characters in the memoir she is reading: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” at SMP [Photo: Gina Long]


Although Thomas Gibbons’ play “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” has been billed as a story about cultural appropriation, the appeal underneath that essential concern is as large: the entire concept of literary ethics. As such, it plays not only to genuine and important concerns about who gets to tell stories tied thoroughly to a particular ethnic or cultural minority, but about all the angles authors have tried in desperation to get a work published. As such, even for those who would never think of embracing ethnic/cultural confusion, there are some very strong statements waiting at the core of the script.

As produced by Sierra Madre Playhouse, all of this comes fascinatingly to light. Well directed, well performed, and beautifully set, it becomes a show most definitely worth checking out.

Shelita Burns (Tamarra Graham) has joined a small publishing house as an editor, because they’ve given the green light to her quest to rediscover the lost voices of African American women authors long out of print, and create a series out of their works. Into that space has arrived a manuscript – a memoir of the life of a drifter, a woman who saw much of the South’s darkness, from Jim Crow forward. Her unique story has won a major non-fiction award, and though Burns had agreed that there would be no personal contact with Libby Price, the author, she decides to ignore this and give the award to Libby in person. This becomes its own rabbit hole, where it appears that nothing may be as has been assumed.

The arguments within the play – and for the audience – then stem from the tangled knot of knowledge and voice and empathetic response and even literary definition which evolve from what, at least initially, seems a pretty obvious concern. That very complexity – the fact that the play doesn’t try to make just a single point and slam it home – proves most satisfying. That, and the sheer quality of the production itself.

Graham makes her character at once deeply, emotionally connected to the work she is doing and ambitious enough to step outside her personal connection with the work she does to the greater rewards awaiting the success of the work she publishes. That balance, and the testing given to both parts, form the essence of the play. Olivia Cristina Delgado, as Shelita’s friend in the publishing business, underscores their elemental Gen-X-ness, and the business end of why a successful book is Shelita’s way forward.

Jon Sprik creates the dual characters of the Times reporter who makes Shelita voice her devotion to Libby’s work, and separate and distinctly develops the white man complicit in Libby’s story. Leilani Smith gives Libby – as narrator of the book she is credited with writing – an elemental warmth and earthiness which dances on the border between stereotype and genuineness, as the play demands.

SMP Artistic Director Christian Lebano provides the lynchpin to all of these characters as Sean, a writer living the under-appreciated life whose machinations bring Libby’s story to Shelita’s attention in ways which create every possible ethical question mark. By creating a character firm in his own unique understanding of the right, he provides Burns’ character with the ultimate foil, and underscores the complex nature of the questions the play has to ask.

Director Saundra McClain has set this episodic piece with a flow made possible by Christopher Scott Murillo’s multi-layered set, which allows the book’s characters to speak from behind a thin screen as those wrestling with the book’s content and future deal more concretely in the foreground. The seamlessness with which this story flows back and forth from the printed page to the modern understanding cements the power of the questions being asked.

In the end, “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” (the name comes from a quaint reference to the train stop beyond hell that someone who has done wrong may arrive at) will leave some in the audience with several levels of moral conundrums to discuss. As a writer, one sees several ethical lapses present in the narrative. Those with a closer connection to the culture being appropriated will find even more. Which are most important, or whether any are, will be the source of discussion after the play itself is done. But then, isn’t that one of the purposes of theater – to challenge one’s assumptions and leave room for change, doubt and revelation?

What: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” When: through February 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with an additional matinee at 2:30 p.m. February 18. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth, $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“Deathtrap” in Sierra Madre: Red Herrings and Suspense Galore

Chriopher Cappiello and Shaw Purnell watch as Karesa McElheny, playing a psychic, "feels" the room in "Deathtrap" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

Chriopher Cappiello and Shaw Purnell watch as Karesa McElheny, playing a psychic, “feels” the room in “Deathtrap” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

As fun as suspense-thriller plays are to watch, they are always difficult to review simply because one must tip-toe around the plot to avoid handing out unintended “spoilers”. Thus, a discussion of the Sierra Madre Playhouse production of “Deathtrap,” the wildly popular thriller which set records off-Broadway, may seem a bit cagey. Still, this production, which was postponed several times to accommodate the wild popularity of SMP’s “Always, Patsy Cline,” provides just enough fascinating red herrings, and just enough jump-out-of-your-seat surprises to be very satisfactory.

This is, in part, due to Ira Levin’s well crafted play itself, in part due to the stylish direction of SMP Artistic Director Christian Lebano, and in part due to a good, ensemble cast who can carry this whole complex construction off.

The tale surrounds frustrated, if famous playwright Sidney Bruhl. Though his fortune was made by hit suspense plays, his more recent ones have fallen flat. Now, steeped in deep writer’s block, he begins to imagine other ways of acquiring a hit script to move forward with. And this is when everything gets rather dark, and extremely convoluted.

Christopher Cappiello, as Bruhl, captures the frustration, the desperation, and the potentially fearsome calculation of a man who cannot be second rate. As his practical, if a bit wary wife, Shaw Purnell displays an opposing calm and content approach to life which may actually provide Bruhl with an added irritation. David Tolemy gives an increasing self-absorption to the playwriting workshop student Bruhl has taken under his wing, while – in a tiny but essential part – Don Savage creates the jolly, but practical voice of Bruhl’s legal advisor and friend.

Still, the absolute standout in this production has to be Karesa McElheny, as Bruhl’s neighbor – a famed psychic played as the most fascinating spiritual kook since Noel Coward’s Madame Arcati. Every time she enters the room, the energy rises.

Kudos go to set designer John Vertrees. I am genuinely amazed at how much real estate he managed to get onto the tiny SMP stage, and how polished it looks. Also polished are the costumes of Vicki Conrad and Ken Merckx’s fight choreography. If there is one fly in the ointment it is that some of the antique pistols used in the play will, to anyone who knows how firearms work, be anomalous with what they are supposed to do. Other than that, the polish is constant.

There is a reason “Deathtrap” lasted so long in New York. Its twists are genuinely startling, and certainly not for either the intolerant or the faint of heart. It also offers up a rather comic, if occasionally disturbing, view of the deep and profound nature of writer’s block which can warp the imagination of anyone who makes a living by the written word.

As produced at Sierra Madre Playhouse, the suspense stays constant, suspicion of everyone allows for edge-of-your-seat viewing, and that satisfying kind of anxiousness which makes suspense stories fun doesn’t let up until the final curtain. “Deathtrap” may not be deep, but it is filled with memorable characters and great weirdnesses of plot. And that can make for one entertaining evening. One warning: due to some of the violence and a few more adult situations, I would not suggest bringing young children.

What: “Deathtrap” When: Through February 20, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays and Thursday, February 4 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (13-20), $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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