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It is still a matter of amazement to me that there are now multiple venues in the Triangle producing new and recent plays. Sometimes we get completely brand-new plays, made right here, in Durham, or Raleigh, or Winston-Salem. That city’s playwright and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan’s new work premiered at Burning Coal Theatre Company on Thursday night to a crowd of friends, fans, and critics, and provoked a general appreciation of its dark humor about the trials and stubborn persistence of the new kind of ambitious hometown artist, this one a filmmaker. Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art will probably play best to people involved with artmaking, and those who know a little about Winston and SECCA, but its basic themes of desire, seduction, manipulation, and revenge are universal.
In Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, desire for success trumps even desire for sex. Everyone involved with the production has intimate knowledge of the bifurcated longings that motivate Ethan (Aaron Mills, Wake Forest University grad and currently movie biz striver in Wilmington), who wants to make his hometown a nexus for art — with himself at the center of the splash rings in his small pond. This desire to make really good art at home, outside of New York or other big centers, is common to many of the actors and directors who are busy making the Triangle such a great place for theater; and Kathryn Milliken LeTrent directs with candid sympathy for Ethan’s struggles, and real empathy for his talented sister Liz’s self-effacement and eventual emergence. Liz, who trained at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, is an actress — making a living as a hairdresser, and working fulltime as prop and mainstay to her brother. As played by newcomer to Raleigh PJ Maske (trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama), Liz is the most subtle, sympathetic, and dynamic character in the story.
The cast is rounded out by Raleigh native Emily Rieder (trained at UNC-Greensboro, now living in Brooklyn, but happy to come home for some work) as the ambitious, flirtatious whirlwind Spencer, who’s come to Winston-Salem for a one-year interim teaching appointment at Wake Forest and who badly wants a role in Ethan’s next film. She may look like a ditzy pretty girl, but she knows how to get what she wants, even if it puts Liz and Ethan in a tailspin. Meanwhile, Ethan’s last film didn’t make it into Sundance (many digs at film festivals here); therefore, his funding for the new one fell through. Hoping to generate more interest in his work in his hometown, he arranges a showing of an earlier film at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, where 10 of his friends show up.
The play is interesting, funny — and somewhat slight. It is probably not going to be one for the ages; but it is spot-on about its place and its moment, in a Nora Ephron kind of way. It grapples with the important question of whether it is possible to be a national, local artist, one for whom home — a tie to place in the Southern sense — is an essential element of the art.
Running in repertory with Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art is Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s Gee’s Bend, about a tiny black community on the Alabama River southwest of Selma, AL. The women of Gee’s Bend are famous now for their distinctive quilts that pattern color into beauty from scraps of worn-out clothes, some with patches on the patches. But before they were discovered by the outside world, the women of Gee’s Bend made these quilts because they needed them, body and soul. There was no thought of art, and the setting is just about as provincial as can be. There was no thought, either, of striving for success in that outside world. After the horrors at Selma in 1965, the white sheriff shut down the river ferry, and folks on both sides were just as glad to leave each other alone. So, isolated and ignorant of the feminist pattern and decoration movement, geometric abstract painting, or any other art form, the women created their quilts. In nearly complete isolation from everything the art world deems necessary for artmaking, they generated a style aesthetically enchanting and securely knotted to the land and community where they live. Thus, Gee’s Bend presents another aspect of what it means to be a local artist, quite a different one from Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.
If SECCA is like a Nora Ephron film, then Gee’s Bend is like a documentary — though, thankfully, not one by Ken Burns. Directed by Marc Williams, it flows like the river; and even if there were no story, you’d stay for the singing and the wonderful movement choreography. Emelia Cowns (Nella), Sherida McMullan (Sadie), and Yolanda Rabun (Alice/Asia) all sing beautifully, opening the show with “My Soul Looks Back in Wonder”; and their acting is no less fine. Powerful actor William Byrd Wilkins as Macon, Sadie’s husband, completes the cast.
We are taken from the early days of Gee’s Bend up to 2002, when the quilts were shown to great acclaim at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, with particular emphasis on the 1960s. Some of the stories are very hard, and they are as much about freedom, safety, and self-sufficiency as they are about art. But when the elderly Sadie sees her quilts on the museum wall and says, “on the bed they just look regular, but up there they look so big,” she has discovered the power of art to make a small particular expression great and universal. Even when its makers stay home, the art goes global.
Burning Coal Theatre Company will perform Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and Gee’s Bend in repertory Thursday-Sunday through May 2. For details, see our theater calendar.