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Rounding into November, I would ordinarily check the weather forecast before venturing out to Boone, NC, to review a theatre production. Not in 2020. All of the Schaefer Center's events on the campus of Appalachian State University are listed as online. Weather, ticket availability, and travel are no longer in the equation, all obviated by the new norms of computerized streaming.
Virtuality would be a straightforward compromise if it only involved translating music, dance, and theatre from three dimensions to two. Mandated social distancing for professional actors and dancers, concerns over spreading airborne particles by singers and horn players, and stricter limits on the number of people who can gather in public places have added more constraints. So it was refreshing to see how effortlessly all of these new restrictions were handled in the North Carolina Black Repertory Company's production of The Resurrection of Alice, the latest Schaefer Center presentation. Better yet, the NC Black Rep production team disdained the annoyances that have plagued performing arts webcasts during the pandemic – dumbed-down content, abbreviated runtimes, and screens carved up ZOOM-style into tic-tack-toe boxes.
Though she would have to be 88 years old to actually stand before us as the protagonist in this drama, the script and the one-woman performance by Perri Gaffney had the detail – and superabundance of characters – of an autobiographical narrative. Sure enough, Gaffney's play of 2013 resurrected a novel that she had self-published in 2004, so the 2020 version, shot with multiple cameras on the Schaefer stage, brought us an actress/playwright/novelist who had lived with the multiple roles she was taking on for nearly two decades. The actress wasted no time in reaching peak energy, for Alice begins her tale in 1939 as a raucous, upbeat 7-year-old in the fictional backwater of Smedley, South Cackalacky – she doesn't break down and let on that it's South Carolina until much later. As the eldest child in her humble household, Alice must set a "zample" for her siblings, which drains some of the fun out of her childhood; and as the prettiest, she must marry Mr. Luthern Tucker, the family benefactor, which robs the teenager and the grownup of her budding love life with Isaac Freeman – and deprives her of the college scholarship she is so excited to win.
Alice's "best birthday" is her 13th, when she meets Isaac at her party and savors her first peppermint-flavored kiss during a game of spin-the-bottle – until that kiss is cruelly interrupted by her elders. The other bright light in Alice's life is her schoolteacher, Miss Johnson, who recognizes her gifts and encourages her college ambitions. Although the shadow of Mr. Tucker had hung over Alice from an early age, her parents kept their betrothal agreement a secret until the moment she joyfully received news of her fully-paid tuition scholarship in the mail. Gaffney crafted the lead-up to this catastrophe and performed its impact upon Alice in a manner that delivered both the shock and the inevitability of her disappointment. Although Alice elicited a promise from Miss Johnson to intercede at the wedding ceremony, an unfortunate miscommunication ensued – along with another shock. Alice found herself imprisoned in wedlock at Mr. Tucker's luxurious home, expected to do her part in birthing a male heir.
Balancing Alice's rusticity and intellect, Gaffney's narrative leans a little more than necessary towards her backwoods naivete in the early episodes, forcing Alice's interest in Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poetry to do the heavy lifting in conveying her academic potential. It was intriguing to hear two of Dunbar's most oft-quoted works, presumably giving voice to a Black man's struggles in White America, so provocatively repurposed. For here, "We Wear the Mask" and "Sympathy" (with its famous "I know why the caged bird sings") are the outcries of an African American woman who is subjugated by a man of her own race. When Alice finds her own voice, two or three children later, I was more convinced that a resurrection was possible, although Gaffney's script makes her protagonist's reawakening and rehab too precipitous to be fully satisfying.
Gaffney's exploits as an actress offered ample compensation. Inspiring resurrection or not, Gaffney bridged the gap between narrating Alice's story and inhabiting her personality so seamlessly that I felt that I was watching her grow and mature before my eyes while the narrative unfolded. Portrayals of the men in Alice's life, prudently brief and nicely differentiated, added richness wherever they popped up, particularly when we glimpsed Isaac, Mr. Tucker, and Rev. Pritchard. If I were director Jackie Alexander, I would prevail upon Gaffney to fill out her portrayals of the key women in her tale. Alice's mamma was too cartoonish for what she had to say about Jesus, and Mrs. Johnson was too bland.
Alexander occasionally took advantage of the cinematic medium by blacking out between scenes, though he never implemented any costume changes. Scenic projections on the upstage curtain were hit-and-miss in terms of registering well on video and a bit slow in playing an integral role in the production. Each time Alice voiced the anger that was welling up inside her but, as it turned out, didn't actually say out loud at the time, the lighting underscored the motif by flooding the stage with lurid red light. A bit heavy-handed and Rocky Horror, perhaps, but the crude device paid dividends when Alice finally flipped the script and discarded her inhibitions.
While the lapses in Gaffney's artistry lend a certain rough-hewn authenticity to her narrative, they also deprive us of seeing more of the actress at work. It would make more sense – and give us a fuller grasp of her maturation as a woman – if Alice;s experience as a mother of her three children (or at least of her two eldest) were part of her growth. And Alice's younger daughter, Ola, "came out" so abruptly near the end that you could easily have missed it. If these loose ends happen to be tied up in Gaffney's 2004 novel, a simple import would suffice in 2020 and beyond.