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Affirmative Actions

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
IN THOMAS GIBBONS' THOUGHTFUL COMEDY BEE-LUTHER-Hatchee, young African-American book editor Shelita Burns (Anne-Marie Johnson), rising in the New York publishing world, is still haunted by memories of staring up at the tomes in bookstores and libraries, and noting the exclusion of minority authors. What is any culture without its stories? Shelita takes that rhetorical question personally.

Which is why she created her "rediscovered voices" series, the centerpiece of which is an award-winning autobiography by a 70-something black woman named Libby Price, about growing up in the Deep South -- a saga to which Shelita connects so emotionally she's determined to meet the author, who spurns the glare of publicity and with whom Shelita corresponds, but has never spoken. Meanwhile, her efforts are being monitored by her white buddy and confidante (Kate Linder), and by a New York Times reporter (Tom Dugan), to whom Shelita admits feeling like a daughter to Libby Price. (Shelita's issue over her own absentee mother is cement for the drama that's about to unfold.)

It takes a couple of trips to North Carolina for Shelita finally to come face to face with her faux mother -- a thin young white guy named Sean Leonard (Martin Grey). And this is where, at the end of Act 1, the play really begins.

DRAMATURGICALLY, BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE FEELS LIKE THE work of a newcomer in that, despite six actors and a realistic style, there are never more than two characters in any scene. (Experienced playwrights tend to enjoy stirring things up with triads and quartets.) But the hotel-room scene in which Sean meets his career-maker is a small triumph. Shelita is, understandably, a wall of rage, at first keeping the gentle fellow at a distance with Mace. Through most of Act 2, she struggles to contain and explain herself, while fielding knotty queries from the unassuming writer, such as: Why is the author more important than the words? Does a white man not have the right to tell about the black storyteller with whom he grew up, or even with whom he didn't? (The actual Libby Price -- portrayed by Michele Lamar Richards -- proffers lyrical excerpts throughout the play.) Finally, the most prickly one: Had Sean been more honest, writing Libby's saga in the third person rather than the first, thereby exposing himself as the white narrator-author, would Shelita still have published it?

Through all this, Shelita still has to choose whether to kill her association with a work that, by her own admission, moved her profoundly -- whether, in other words, to censor it, ostensibly because of Sean's duplicity, but really because he's white. Irony doesn't come any better than that, and Shelita's subterranean racism is as tantalizing as it is prevalent.

So who is the victim here? Being a satire, the play, of course, is rigged on Sean's behalf: Art is larger than social policy. Director Ben Guillory gets some awfully good performances from his ensemble, though lighting designer Joe Morrisey's projected backdrops of clouds and colors, in addition to Johnson's weepy denouement, lead us to conclude that Gibbons has penned a light tragedy rather than a serious comedy.

But that's nothing very serious. I sat in the packed theater feeling the effects of a ceiling fan -- a cool, fresh breeze, not unlike the play itself.

BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE | By THOMAS GIBBONS | Presented by the ROBEY THEATER COMPANY, in association with ELEPHANT INDUSTRIES, at the TAMARIND THEATER, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hollywood | Through September 12