I was never into history. Not really.
Strange, then, that I am finding the history of Arkansas, where I now call home, particularly interesting. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in Arkansas longer than any other state in my residential history. Maybe it’s because down here the stuff I studied in textbooks feels a little more recent. Let’s face it; when the Grand Dragon of the KKK lives a few hours away, it’s hard to stay removed from discussions about race. When the Civil War is still half-jokingly referred to by some as The War of Northern Aggression, well, there’s something there, something that needs exploration.
This might be why a new play by a local professional theater, TheatreSquared, is resonating so much with me. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of this theater, so I am unashamedly going to try to convince you to go see the play). The play is called Sundown Town. A sundown town, for those like me who didn’t know until recently, was a town where black people were not allowed in the town after sundown. There are towns near me who only took those laws off the books within the last half century; they are very real.
However, this play isn’t really about the law from which it takes it’s name. It’s more of a tragic ensemble piece, concerned more with matters of sin than jurisprudence. Set in a highly religious, ficticious Arkansas town called Healing Springs (the windows of a church take up a full 1/3 of the set), it’s the story of what happens to a town of (mostly) pious white folks when a black drifter comes around. It’s a multi-layered story, with characters that are both typical and richly textured. The innocent daughter, the town drunk, the local businessman, the beloved blind elder, the Christian mother, the steady father; these standard characters are mostly multi-dimensional and full of wisdom, pathos and flaws. They are instantly recognizable, and with a few exceptions, instantly likable.
Their sins (as defined by their worldview) are many and varied, and boy, do they agonize over them. Along the way, they occasionally break into song. The music is live, performed by local favorite 3 Penny Acre, a seriously awesome gift for a theatrical production. Hands down, the songs were well sung and well played, and I’m a little saddened to admit my opinion that sometimes, they didn’t serve the progression of the story. I was most interested in the music when it was providing a live soundscape for the story: underscoring the dramatic slow motion violence or providing the soundtrack for a pantomimed fiddle or piano. Still, I have to admire the playwright, music director and performers for making the music so raw; seeing a lone actor on stage, singing her heart out without a microphone or amplified support sound is a very moving experience.
The writing is equally moving, exploring tough subjects without delving too much into the preachy or didactic. There are times when it gets a little lyrical, which is fine by me. I like to imagine a world where “common” folks speak with some poetry. Like many new shows, there are some scenes and songs that go on a bit too long, but after a while, I didn’t care. I wanted to see more of these people and know more about their struggles.
Speaking of struggles, this is not a happy show. There are moments of levity, but at its heart, this show isn’t meant to take you away from the world or make you feel good about yourself. It’s meant to make you think. Not surprisingly, convincing people to see this one has been tougher than usual. But I want to challenge those few who might be reading this to give it a shot. Sure, the subject matter hits close to home. No, you won’t walk out humming any catchy tunes. In the program, a TheatreSquared staff member wonders if we really should hold a mirror up to history, or is it better to just move on? If you want to move on, this play won’t let you. Which is why I think you should see it.
There are multiple other reasons to see it: a beautiful set, marvelous performances by the whole cast, several of whom are local actors, and the fact that this play has been nurtured by a local theater company through two seasons of workshops. Put simply, it’s a good play and a good story. And here’s my final plea; by going to see a show that isn’t really all that happy, you will appreciate the happy plays even more. 🙂