There are two people on the stage in front of us – Leroy Grant (Jason Bowen) and Berta (the remarkable Bianca Laverne Jones), writhing in love and sorrow – but a third character hangs over them, patient and hungry. That is the character of Parchman Penitentiary, the massive Mississippi industrial farm which made substantial annual profits from the unpaid labor of an overwhelmingly Black population, put in there on trumped-up charges or no charges at all.
Parchman does not announce itself in the opening scene, in which Berta is engaged in a vigorous but futile attempt to wash the blood out of Leroy’s shirt. They were lovers once, before circumstances and their own limitations drove them apart. When Leroy put himself just out of Berta’s reach she married Ernie, a farmer. They had some good years together before he died, but now that he’s gone the house is falling apart, and so is Berta’s life.
closes July 29, 2018
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What playwright Angelica Chéri has done in Berta, Berta is to take the bones of the enigmatic, powerful song of the same name and give it flesh and muscle. The song lays down the basics: a man is going to a Parchman, and he urges his Berta not to wait for him. He has some specific advice: she should marry a railroad man, not a farmer. Her quality of life will be better.
But who is Berta, and who is the man who has left her this doleful message? Why is he going to Parchman, and why shouldn’t she wait for him? Chéri has concocted a plausible, and dramatically satisfying, explanation. In her imagining of the story behind the song, Leroy is a man of passion, exuberance and joy, without an ounce of the self-discipline necessary to turn his fantasies into real experiences.
Leroy Grant is, in short, a sinner like all of us. A thousand other people look back and chuckle at the zany foibles of their youth, but because he is a young Black man in 1920s Mississippi, he is doomed.
And Berta? Berta is enchanted with him, but she knows who he is. He is the man who makes her heart race, and her blood boil. She is aware of his failings and is prepared to forgive every one of them except the last, which is his betrayal of self. She is no fool, and she is not tolerant of foolishness, but she is gladly a fool for Leroy’s love.
Chéri drenches her dialogue in the poetry of the earth to match the earthiness of the characters. Berta sighs that Leroy smells of “sweaty sweet nothings” which describes her old lover perfectly: he is a man who labors to bathe her in love, but who stubbornly remains just short of fully substantial.
When a play’s language is poetical, the actors have an extra responsibility to make it sound authentic. Bowen is spot-on as the flawed, big-hearted Leroy. He loves Berta, but the engine that moves him is lust; there are moments in which her presence transfuses him with ecstasy, and not of the spiritual variety. Leroy is a man aware of the terrible danger that he is in but who has an indefatigable will to talk about something else, and Bowen makes us see that man.
Berta is more complex, and Jones gives us an astonishing array of emotions in conflict. She is enraged that Leroy woke her in the middle of the night and at the same time full of sympathy and fear for him; she bitterly resents his absence from her life and at the same time craves his carnal touch; she struggles to honor the memory of her dead husband, a good man who loved her and bored her. Jones must carry all these different aspects of Berta with her simultaneously. She does, too, showing with her eyes and her face a world of story not in the text but in the context. A performance like Jones’ reminds us that the best theater is a conspiracy of storytelling among the playwright, the director (the very fine Reginald L. Douglas) and the actors.
Chéri provides two narrative hooks: what has Leroy done? And what happens now? She answers the first one at precisely the right moment; any further dialogue and we would have been mentally urging the characters to get on with it already. I thought she answered the second question prematurely, with about a third of the play to go. Though the rest of the play was beautifully written and beautifully rendered, the fix was in.
Though this is a realistic play, there is a dollop of reverie, fantasy, and, toward the end, magic. To reinforce the text lighting designer John Ambrosone and sound designer David Remedios have created some very powerful effects which, I’ll wager, you’ll remember as long as you remember the play.
Berta, Berta by Angelica Chéri, directed by Reginald L. Douglas, featuring Jason Bowen and Bianca Laverne Jones. Scenic design by Luciana Stecconi . Costume design by Sarita Fellows . Lighting design by John Ambrosone . Sound design by David Remedios . Miguel Angel Lopez is the technical director . Jeremy Phillips is the stage manager . Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.