February 21, 2020
The chips are all in with this civil rights gem
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
Grand View University continues to bless the Greater Des Moines theatre community by developing powerful collaborations. Wild Widow Poker brings the forces of an excellent playwright, faculty member Dr. A’ndrea J. Wilson, luring Pyramid Theatre Company’s talented Artistic Director, Tiffany Johnson, and having the university’s theatre department produce this show. A’ndrea J. Wilson, PhD, MFA, serves as Grand View University Braida Endowed Chair of Creative Writing. Dr. Wilson is one of those wonderful spirits whose expansive muse works in both the educational and professional worlds. Those who connect with her, students, faculty and community, will benefit from such encounters. This show is one such special encounter.
Wilson sets her Civil Rights Era play in 1963 Chicago. Exploring a micro-facet of African-American history, her story was inspired by the Jacob Lawrence painting, “The Card Game.” Mesmerized by the multi-layered expressiveness of Lawrence’s work, Wilson’s mind expanded from the seemingly mundane activity of a card game into the greater context of what was happening with civil rights issues of the day. Wild Widow Poker is the magnificent manifestation of her research, imagination and thoughtful deliverance. 1963 allows the audience several decades to blessedly buffer those harsh realities of that era, while also the curse of being reminded of those times and what has and hasn’t changed since then.
The idea of sanctuary during a volatile time in the civil rights movement is thoughtfully and poignantly explored in Wilson’s script. More telling is the arc of the story as sanctuary becomes an incubator for growth. Setting this story apart from more traditional social issue plays is this script’s unique strength. A privileged black country club setting in Chicago in the early 1960s is an unfamiliar concept for most. Director Tiffany Johnson makes this engaging script pop to life as Wilson’s snappy dialogue pushes and pulls the audience along. Infused with a cultural essence to be shared and better understood, the audience is encouraged to vocally react when so moved by Johnson’s during her pre-show presentation.
While racism dominates the themes explored, when stripped of color, many of the characters’ personal challenges are universal. The civil rights atrocities are not, however, laying a sobering foundation for the story as 1963 proves to be a year of chilling and horrific realities. The differences between black and white are complex and ingrained. What begins as casual conversation over card games, often from a disengaged vantage point, takes a jarring change when a new player is invited into the game – a white woman. In the hands of the gifted Johnson, this intimate space becomes a canvas as she paints the stage with her ensemble, often spilling outside the lines. The results are powerful – humorous, shocking, tense, resonating.
As the gracious host, and wife of the physician country club owner, DeShana Langford embodies a grace and openness as her Gladys Green a.k.a. Mrs. G quietly commands. Given plenty of leeway in this group dynamic is Virginia Hall a.k.a. Ginny, given bombastic attitude and sass by the versatile and gifted Alexis Davis. As the Bible-toting Lenora Lattimore a.k.a. Lee Lee, Mikayla Morris allows the complexity of her character to seep out gradually, in beautifully nuanced ways. Emma Banner plays the surprise newcomer, Susan Daley, who quickly becomes dehumanized when referred to by Ginny as White Girl. Ginny is relentless in her thinly veiled verbal assaults on Susan, who stoically endures the heat. Add Wilson’s original songs (yes, she’s an excellent songwriter, too), delivered with heart-catching aplomb by the talented, sultry-voiced Rebecka Davis, and the necessary exposition delivering device of a separate newscaster (given earnest, if sometimes uneven, reporting by Benjamin Hartzer), and this play is a wondrous blend of cultural sweet and civil rights savory. Davis’ song styling helped buffer the harsh realities broached in the play, a beautiful respite woven into this powerful context.
With Ginny’s entrance, there are some reverse “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” twists to this story, giving patrons an uncomfortably satisfying journey. A chillingly pivotal moment happens with the broadcast of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls. Although separated by hundreds of miles from “Bombingham, Alabama,” this cloister of women feels the reverberations of the bombing as if it happened in their neighborhood. Act One establishes the characters. Act Two shifts the intent and direction, giving the audience an inside understanding of activism. This implied challenge to the audience is enlightening and inspiring and lingers well beyond the final curtain. The message is direct and not preachy, a gift to the audience.
Wilson’s masterfully crafted script, under the respectful and engaging direction of Johnson, and student designer Olivia Palmer’s pragmatic patchwork of micro-sets anchored by the center stage green felt card table combine for one major truth: this is a transformative play. The only regret about this production is that it only had a four-performance run. Watch for this show to be produced again – and, be in attendance. It would be a shame to fold on Wild Widow Poker if given a second draw.
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