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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Follow Me to Nellie's: The Civil Rights Movement
as Viewed From a Mississippi Bordello

Also see Bob's reviews of The Judy Holliday Story and Penny Penniworth

Follow Me to Nellie's
Lynda Gravátt
There have been innumerable movies and plays dealing with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to eradicate Jim Crow from the American south. Coming into my adulthood during this era, it has always been clear to me that race and the struggle for racial equality has been the most significant and defining issue in America in my lifetime. Thus, it is commendable when writers continue to analyze and illuminate this chapter of our history for new generations. One such effort, Follow Me to Nellie's is the new play by Dominique Morisseau now playing in a developmental production at Premiere Stages. Although not the freshest or best constructed of such efforts, it is a generous and insightful melodrama that at its best transcends laudable respectability and worthwhile effort to provide illumination into the lives of its protagonists.

Dominique Morisseau has set her play in a bordello in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1955. The madam is a fictionalized version of the author's great-aunt, Nellie Jackson, who ran a "respectable" bordello in Natchez for almost sixty years. Jackson was a visible, accepted member of the community who is said to have contributed to civic development, paid hospital bills for those in need, posted bail for civil rights activists, and provided a "safe haven" for prostitutes who would have otherwise been subject to the abuses faced by streetwalkers.

Heretofore, blacks have been systematically deprived of their voting rights. Ossie, a college student civil rights activist, has come to town in order to organize and lead a drive to register blacks to vote. Nellie agrees to allow him to secretly rent a room on her property in order to afford him protection from being assaulted. Along with three prostitutes, Nellie houses Na Rose, a sweet young thing with plans to become a blues singer. Na Rose was informally adopted by Nellie after the death of her parents. Ossie and Na Rose become romantically attached, but trouble lies ahead in the eerie attraction of the new sheriff's troubled son, Roy, Jr. to Na Rose.

Lynda Gravátt is a multi-dimensional Nellie. Weary and at the end of her strength, Gravátt's compassionate and caring Nellie remains a wary and strong-willed force, never playing for our sympathy. Warren Miller as Ossie and Kelly McCreary as Na Rose bring such naturalism to their portrayals that you may forget you are watching actors as the duo together explore their thoughts about their behaviors and futures as well as their feelings about one another. Author Morisseau displays great skill and insight in the dialogue which provides the basis for such a high level of performance in scenes which engage our interest, as only superior playwriting can.

Nyahale Allie is powerfully disturbing as the troubled and troublesome Marla, the prostitute whose behavior keeps her just one step away from being forced back to the abuse which she encountered before receiving the protection of being one of Nellie's girls. Michelle Wilson (Rae Ann) and Ley Smith (Sunny) are attractive, likeable and at ease as the other two prostitutes. These attributes are assets for achieving success in the oldest profession, and are appropriate for the ladies of Nellie's top of the line establishment.

Adam Couperthwaite is eerily off-centered as the troubled Tom, Jr., a character who demonstrates that it is not only blacks who suffer from the situations created by the cruelty inherent in Jim Crow. Harold Surratt capably fills the role of Rollo, a modest older black man who finds dignity and hope through his participation in the mid twentieth century movement for emancipation.

John Wooten has directed a smoothly flowing production which both fills and is enhanced by Joseph Gourley's expansive set, which includes the side yard of Nellie's bordello and feels lived in. It includes six separate working lighting fixtures. Karen Hart's fine costumes are appropriate to the time and characters as well as being pleasing to the eye.

The exposition is a bit long and likely contributes to the overly discernible nature of the well worn mechanics which are employed here to set up the play. For my taste, a less melodramatic ending that demonstrates a successful intervention by Nellie would enhance Morisseau's endeavor (the current climax draws on an event in Jackson's life that occurred over three decades after the time of the play). Still, Dominique Morisseau has engagingly recreated a fascinating time and place, and introduced us to people and events well worth experiencing. Most encouragingly, Meet Me at Nellie's introduces us to a writer who can create scenes and characters which engage us as only the finest stage literature can.

Follow Me to Nellie's continues performances (Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8pm/ Saturday and Sunday 3pm) through July 30, 2011, at the Zelda Fry Theatre in the Vaughn Eames Building on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, New Jersey. Box Office:908-737-4092; online: www.kean.edu/premierestages.

Follow Me To Nellie's by Dominique Morisseau

Cast
Nellie......................................Lynda Gravátt
Na Rose................................Kelly McCreary
Marla......................................Nayahale Allie
Ree Ann............................... Michelle Wilson
Sandy............................................Ley Smith
Ossie.......................................Warren Miller
Rollo......................................Harold Surratt
Tom, Jr....................... Adam Couperthwaite


Photo: Roy Groething


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- Bob Rendell



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