by Beki Pineda
BLESSED ASSURANCE -Written by Laddy Sartin; Directed by Kirsten Jorgensen Smith. Produced by Coal Creek Theatre Company (Louisville Center for the Arts, 801 Grant Street, Louisville) through March 9. Tickets available at 303-665-0955 or cctlouisville.org.
If there were justice in the world, a play about the right to vote written in 2003 about events in 1964 should be a history lesson of events long past or a nearly unbelievable anachronism. But with recent challenges to voting rights laws and customs, states that require IDs and the attempts by county officials to deny Native American Indians their lawful right to register, BLESSED ASSURANCE becomes a reminder that all these rights were hard fought battles that continue into the present. The lesson of this production is vigilence.
Olivia, the cook/waitress at the WhiteHouse Cafe in the summer of ’64, decides it’s time she stand up for herself and the other African Americans in her small town. In what should have been a small act of rebellion, she walks to the county courthouse and tries to register to vote. Instead of a blip on the radar of the day, it turns into a hurricane of recrimination, violence, and threats to everyone associated with her. The town bully Slick seems to think that her buddy Lewis should have been able to control her and goes after him. The owner of the cafe Harlan tries to straighten things out at the courthouse and gets beaten up as a result. But as events spiral out of control, backbones straighten and both races begin to face up to the reality of the future. As usual, and rightly so, the young people are blessed with the foresight and intelligence to see not the wisdom of the way things are, but the improvements that need to be made.
The pivotal role of Olivia is given to OD Duhu who brings the soft spoken but determined woman to life. She is no preaching rabble-rousing crusader; she’s simply a woman who wants her rights. She doesn’t want anyone else to fight her battles for her and doesn’t quite comprehend why she should have to fight for what is rightfully hers in the first place. Byron Thompson plays Lewis, part boyfriend, part just friend, with a quiet strength and resolution. Whatever Olivia decides she’s going to do, he’s going to be right there with her, even if it means getting torn up by an attack dog. Jim Whiteman, CCTL favorite, brings his experience to the role of Harlan and allows him to portray the quiet hero he does so well. The role of Harlan also allows him to express anger and frustration at Olivia and the whole situation. Caught in the middle between what he knows is right and what he knows is safe puts him in a precarious position. A glass of water can make all the difference in the world.
Annie Howell plays Sally, Harlan’s sassy teenage daughter, who also finds herself caught up in the excitement – but solidly on the side of Olivia. With clear insight and foreshadowing of the years to come, she can’t quite understand what all the fuss is about. Larry Bangs sits off to the side of the stage in the broadcast booth of the local radio station and sets the mood with announcements and music for the upcoming scenes.
The stand-out performance of the night however is Jesse Waddell as the racist, mean-spirited redneck villain of the piece. He is the enforcer for the mysterious “they” who keep sending threatening messages and demanding violent actions as reprisals. He has a crush on Sally and wishes she would acknowledge his “importance” in the situation. In those scenes, he is the kid he really is – but his need for acceptance and power overwhelm his good sense. As an adult in the audience, you just want to shake him by the shoulders and tell him to go home to his Mama and be a good boy. He probably would have said, “Yes, Ma’am” and gone quietly.
There were some hesitancy in the pacing of some scenes which could have been a result of trying to remember the lines on the first weekend or could have been some unfortunate acting choices The set with its restaurant bar and red leather stools was authentic, if a little too neat for a busy cafe. The lighting gave enhancement to a poignant final tableaux.
I like going to Coal Creek. This is true community theatre at its boldest. They choose interesting scripts to bring to their town; they attract good to very good actors for their productions; they have nurtured a feeling of community within their group and built on it for years. Look at the program and you’ll see people listed for the individual tasks required for putting on a performance. Then when you get to the Set Construction label, there’s about twenty people listed. I can only imagine the camaraderie involved on the set building weekends. That’s the reason people continue to do theatre.
A WOW factor of 8!!