SHOUTING DOWN A QUIET LIFEBy Holli Harms
Directed by Selmore Haines
Stage Manager – Pharryn Hodge
Choreographer – Christian O’Neill Houston
Set Designer – Harley Roche
Lighting Designer – Adam Chamberlin
Costume Coordinator – Dale Gooden Weaver
Properties Designer – Kristin M. Burgess
Audio Engineer – Jason Rice
Light and Sound Board Operator – Kenneth Hall
Backstage Crew – Kale Marable
Program – Carol M. Rice
Box Office – Kim Wickware
Show Logo – Mike Hathaway
Emmett Fludd – Angelo Reid
Bernice Fludd – Natasha Wells
James Fludd/Young Emmett – Marquese K. Johnson
Mary Iron – Mercedes Michelle
Doyle Paige/Floyd Paige/Reverend – Christian Taylor
Reviewed Performance: 12/6/2019
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
This tragedy, which also is referred to as the Orangeburg massacre, forms the secret backstory of the fictionalized main character, esteemed archeologist Emmett Fludd (Angelo Reid), in Shouting Down a Quiet Life. Rover Dramawerks presents the world premiere of this award-winning play by contemporary playwright Holli Harms.
The play switches time periods between 1968 and 1998. We first meet Emmett in 1998, as the cerebral and poised Professor, who lectures his class on the revelations from his archeological digs, and the ways in which objects illuminate the lives that went before. In his lectures, Professor Fludd explains that the field of archeology searches for understanding of a past that cannot speak for itself. As the play unfolds, we learn that the most important past Emmett needs to understand, and finally come to terms with, is his own.
At the beginning of the play, there is a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner vibe, but from the point of view of the future groom’s black parents. Bernice (a marvelous Natasha Wells) and Emmett discuss a pending dinner with their son and his girlfriend, and Bernice drops a “she’s white” bomb quickly and casually. If Bernice thought that her nothing-to-see-here delivery and the comfort food would blunt the effect, she is quickly disabused of that notion. While Emmett’s reaction is initially funny, the audience soon learns that he is actually serious in his opposition to the white girlfriend, whom Bernice has already met and likes. The couple’s son James (Marquese K. Johnson), enters the picture, and mother and son are upset and dumbfounded in turn at Emmett’s hostility toward a young lady he has never even met.
Bernice explains at one point that getting Emmett to laugh is an accomplishment. In flashbacks, the audience sees a younger Emmett (Marquese K. Johnson), one much quicker to laugh and with a one-hundred-and-eighty degrees different attitude about white people. The audience comes to understand that Emmett Fludd’s life has a before and after line of demarcation: before and after the fateful night of the campus bonfire.
Through his time as a husband and father, Emmett has kept secret—and repressed—a past that was not given due media attention at the time. The themes reminded me of Freud’s theory of repression, but writ large. The 1968 massacre did not get nearly the same attention as the Kent State conflict. Perhaps the media’s inadequate coverage allowed Emmett to lie to his wife, telling her that his scars were from a car accident rather than the shooting. His psychological scars did not heal. We learn that after the massacre, when he became a professor, he eschewed more prodigious employment to stay closer to home, at a black college. The truth comes to light via a mysterious bequest made to Emmett in the will of Mary Iron (Mercedes Michelle). Bernice has never heard of her, and she is not pleased.
Natasha Wells is funny and delightful as Bernice, a strong woman who knows who she is and relishes her grilled cheese recipe and life in general. Wells has an easy command of the stage, imbuing her character’s voice and facial expressions with animation. “Me and my moonlight; it’s why we’re together,” Bernice says at one point, referring to the romantic first meeting between her and Emmett. Wells is fun to watch.
As Professor Emmett Flood, Reid is graceful and dignified at the podium, and delivers a finely calibrated performance throughout. Reid does a good job with the undercurrents plaguing his character during the arguments Emmett has with his wife and son, James. As James, Johnson’s reactions to his parents are convincing.
Mary Iron, whom we see mostly in the year 1968, is playful and coquettish, that is when she is not justifiably furious at the racist reverend’s command that the congregation pray for a segregated bowling alley. A bowling alley needs prayers? Mary is disgusted. The writing here is clever in revealing the sheer idiocy of the segregationists, and Michelle does a good job with the material. Michelle also does a good job with a soliloquy describing a young girl’s dilemma during a bloody scene at the hospital where Mary works as a nurse.
Remember when Lupita Nyong’o played doppelgangers in a horror movie, and received glowing reviews because her two characters were so different? Their body language, posture, gestures, voice, were so very different, and the critics loved it. Well, Shouting Down a Quiet Life does not have a menacing doppelganger, but it does have Johnson and Christian Taylor displaying the same shape-shifting talent as they bring very different characters to life.
And I mean different. When we first see him, Taylor is a confident and smooth-talking, ultimately odious, preacher using his power behind the pulpit to promote racism. Next, Taylor appears as the opposite character, Doyle Paige. You have not seen stuttering this poignant since Collin Firth won an Oscar. I have never seen stuttering this profoundly convincing in a live performance ever. I am familiar with Taylor’s excellent work at Ochre House and Shakespeare in the Park, but here he really hits it out of the park. The first scene between Doyle Paige and the young Emmett veers off in a direction I did not see coming. It is good writing, and an astoundingly moving performance by Taylor. That one scene is worth the price of admission.
Johnson also displays superlative skills distinguishing young Emmett and the more buttoned-up James.
In this production, the sound design and effects are excellent. Particularly successful are effects placing the audience in the middle of a bowling alley—based on the sounds. Excellent lighting effects compensate for a minimal set by cueing the different scene changes. The chairs are a clever touch: around the lake house table they are mismatched, but there are two matching chairs on set, one of which appears in the bequest.
This world premiere of Shouting Down a Quiet Life only extends through December 14, so get your tickets now. The themes are timely. The storyline is compelling. And, the performances are truly memorable. I recommend this production for fans of meaningful, dramatic live theater.
December 5 through 14
221 W. Parker Rd., Suite 580, Plano, TX 75023
For information and Tickets call 972 849-0358 or go to www.roverdramawerks.com.