History (and entertainment based on such events) largely focuses on the generals of any war, be they Patton or Malcolm X. The individuals who make up the foot-soldiers, acting behind the scenes or engaged in the minor day-to-day skirmishes, rarely get the attention that they deserve. S.M. Shephard-Massat explores four such intrepid fighters in her debut drama, Waiting To Be Invited, now playing at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle.
Based on her grandmother and three of her friends, Waiting To Be Invited, tells of four middle-aged, church-going, steadily employed members of the African-American community in the early '60s who are doing their bit in the battle for equality; namely attempting to integrate a whites-only department store lunchroom in Atlanta. Dressed as if going to high tea in crisp white dresses, gloves and hats, these are proud women who simply want what they (and the Supreme Court) believe they have coming to them. After all, if the department store is willing to take their hard-earned money, they certainly should allow them to partake of a little refreshment as well.
Although structurally clumsy, especially in the second act, Waiting To Be Invited is both observant and touching and provides a tour de force for its actors. The first act is a well-constructed quest tale in which Miss Louise (Demene E. Hall), Miss Odessa (Ebony Jo-Ann) and Miss Delores (Cynthia Jones) prepare for their upcoming battle and mount their steed of choice, a bus driven by Palmeroy Bateman (Keith L. Hatten). Through their banter and interaction with an addled elderly white woman, Miss Grayson (Jane Welch), we not only get to know them as individuals, but discover that the sword of racism cuts in both directions with insidiously small strokes. Unlike far too many plays that use racism as a battering ram to club the audience into submission, Waiting To Be Invited uses it as a thin rapier whose wounds and effects are almost invisible. To witness the oblivious Miss Grayson make well meaning, but unconsciously racist, remarks or see Miss Louise shrink away from having to sit next to Miss Grayson is to see how subtle and insidious the affects of racism are.
The play gets off track in the second act, where the three women meet their final partner-in-crime, Miss Ruth (Michele Shay), the pastor's wife who's fašade of calm merely masks her nearly irrational fears. At that point, the characters are basically in a holding pattern as they become understandably anxious and unnerved by what may wait for them beyond the restaurant doors. Will they be jailed or merely spat upon? If they are served, will the food be tampered with or merely cost five times the price it should? The characters descend into hysterics, cat fighting, and out-of-the-blue discoveries and outbursts as the play meanders until it finally refocuses itself thanks to the iron hand of Miss Louise. However, even with this small detour, Waiting To Be Invited takes the audience on a remarkable journey and illustrates the many small, courageous, largely unrecognized fighters it takes to win a war. S.M. Sheppard-Massat is to be congratulated for a very promising first play and I look forward to future journeys with her.
Waiting to be Invited runs through September 16.