For space reasons, Pearl Cleage’s 2013 play is called “The Nacirema Society.” But the full name of this warmhearted but also contrived and only intermittently funny feel-good comedy is “The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First Hundred Years.” The lengthy and ungainly title foreshadows the experience to come, as the show lasts a full three hours, including a first act that’s as long and exposition-laden as many complete plays.
The titular society is an unashamedly elitist grouping of wealthy African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama—the “crème de la crème of Negro society,” as a snooty matron notes. The year is 1964, one year after the horrific church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little Black girls, an event mentioned only glancingly here. The Nacirema (spell it backwards) Society, which consists mainly of the widows and children of successful male doctors, is about to hold its great annual event: a cotillion in which, if all goes as planned, the latest crop of cultivated Naciremian daughters will plight their troth to the upcoming generation of eligible young Black physician sons. No scholarships are awarded or charity given; the evening is meant to demonstrate to white Montgomery that there is a refined, indeed haughty, segment of the Black community that requires neither scholarships nor charity.
It would be a pretty boring play if the big ball went smoothly, so Atlanta-based playwright Pearl Cleage—subject of a multi-venue local festival featuring her work—throws in a truckload of complications, ranging from romantic befuddlements and family disputes to the smug and nosy presence of a New York Times reporter and the looming threat of scandal and blackmail. In the end, though—unnecessary spoiler alert!—everything is sorted out with the brisk efficiency of a conscientious debutante sending out her post-party thank-you notes.
What’s striking about “Nacirema Society” is how closely it replicates the structure of Victorian melodrama, beat for beat. It’s the consummate “well-made” play, cobbled from obligatory scenes such as the Confrontation of Rivals, the Revelation of Past Misdeeds, the Discovery of the Missing Document and the ultimate Reconciliation and Re-bonding Scene. The only expected scene missing here is the Nacirema ball itself, which would be beyond the capacity of many theaters. But probably not the Goodman, which gives us a real doozy of a set here, courtesy of designer Arnel Sancianco. It consists of an array of sliding, receding and rising surfaces, including an early-1960s Formica kitchen saturated to the point of surrealism with “Barbie”-like bubblegum pastels.
This sort of classic dramaturgy—including the inevitably neat and clean denouement—felt old-fashioned a century ago. But based on the audience response on opening night, characterized by frequent, full-bodied laughter and a long-lasting standing ovation, the formula still works. This critic found the storyline creaky and the humor more broad than sharp, but it’s clearly not a majority opinion.
Director Lili-Anne Brown does her best to keep things moving, a daunting task in a play that packs in a season’s worth of TV-series plot developments into a single evening of theater. The script would benefit from red-pencil work, shortening and simplifying the action. The sheer quantity of narrative keeps the characters from ripening and deepening over the course of the show. Simple adjectives—Domineering, Vindictive, Romantic, Ditsy—describe the roles all too thoroughly.
These one-note characters slog through a play that can’t decide whether it’s a comedy of manners, in which proprieties matter, or flat-out farce. The endless gags undercut the drama, turning just about every exchange into a joke and reducing the audience to a laugh track. The repartee that drives the play is often chuckle-worthy but is more passive-aggressive than genuinely witty.
The cast features local luminaries E. Faye Butler (as Grace Dunbar, queen of Montgomery’s Black elite), Ora Jones (as her bosom friend, Catherine) and Demetra Dee (as Grace’s starry-eyed, slightly rebellious granddaughter, Gracie). Tyla Abercrumbie shines in her depiction of the angry, excluded character Alpha Jackson, the bug in the punchbowl of this year’s cotillion. She alone manages to give a touch of complexity, to a villain-ish role. The other speaking actors—Eric Gerard as the charming if initially weak-willed young man, Sharriese Hamilton as Grace’s self-effacing daughter-in-law, Jaye Ladymore as the supercilious reporter and Felicia Oduh as Alpha Jackson’s love-smitten, activist daughter—give competent if not always riveting performances. And literally without saying a word, Shariba Rivers pretty much steals the show as Jessie, the Dunbars’ stealthily omniscient maid. Rivers’ well-honed comic timing and understated physical reactions to the conspiratorial goings-on around her give a much-needed ironic counterpoint to a sometimes talky and heavy-handed production.
What’s most curious and maybe problematic about this play is what it doesn’t mention or deal with. Is it possible that in Montgomery, Alabama in 1964—at the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement and white supremacist backlash—a Black family, however socially prominent, could be entirely insulated from the circumambient conflict and violence? Yet that seems to be the case here, in a resolutely upbeat show that could, with relatively few alterations, be set among the WASPy gentry of Lake Forest’s Onwentsia Club. Reality is out there somewhere, reflected in the newspaper stories the characters read about Martin Luther King, Jr., but it never seems to knock at the maid-opened door.
Ostensibly about a moment of radical, liberating change, “Nacirema Society” seems to me an intensely conservative play, in its conventional, unchallenging dramatic construction and also its content, in which a privileged family comes to terms with its past, while the hierarchies and boundaries that define that family’s world go unquestioned.
In a traumatized moment like today, a show like this—without shadowing, subtext or satire—may be what people want. But is it what we need? “The Nacirema Society” could have been an edifying experience for viewers, as well as an entertaining one. That road hasn’t been taken, and the result is a comedy whose laughs lack deeper resonance.
On stage at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, through October 22. Tickets available at (312)443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org. $25-$90.