Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
The Theater of the First Amendment’s current production takes its name from a fictional place in African-American legend, an imaginary train depot one stop beyond hell. “You ain’t careful, you’ll end up in Bee-Luther-Hatchee” is the phrase an annoyed parent says to a recalcitrant child. And one stop beyond hell might also be the career destination of those who challenge political correctness and don’t succeed. The play is about an African-American book editor who learns that the award-winning memoir she has published, purportedly that of an elderly black woman, was actually written by a white man. And the playwright, Thomas Gibbons, is also a white man—who seems to be setting himself up for a trip to the dreaded depot. To a large extent, however, he has created two sympathetic characters to carry his argument: that the messenger is less important than the message. Shelita (Lisa Biggs), a Princeton-educated editor, specializes in discovering otherwise lost voices from the African-American community. She immediately takes to Libby Price, whose account of growing up in the Jim Crow-era South arrives in her New York office over the transom. When the book wins a prestigious prize, Shelita travels to the South to meet the woman who has thus far communicated only by mail. After several failed attempts to come face to face with Libby, Shelita receives a visit from one Sean Leonard (Michael L. Forrest), who convinces her that he produced the manuscript. (Libby’s book is also Bee-Luther-Hatchee.) Sean defends his hoax by pointing out that, without him, Libby’s story would remain obscure. Decidedly calculating, Sean also reveals a personal connection to a real Libby, one that makes him less demonic than he first seems. “Writers create illusions,” he points out. Do our conventional ideas about authenticity really matter? Or is Sean’s book part of an ugly history of white appropriation of black culture? These are fascinating questions. Gibbons muddies his argument, however, by making the work in question a hybrid of fiction and memoir; whereas it is certainly allowable for novelists to take on voices other than their own, the same is not true of nonfiction. A bigger problem, however, is that though Bee-Luther-Hatchee wants to be a play of ideas, it’s little more than a verbal sparring match. For this reason, it’s never emotionally compelling. Under the direction of Jennifer L. Nelson, however, Bee-Luther-Hatchee gets a crackerjack production, and the entire cast, including Susan Lynskey and Bradley Thoennes in several smaller roles, is lively and engaging. The play’s short blackout sketches are staged amid gigantic scrims depicting evocative and sinister images of black women taken from two John Biggers paintings. We also glimpse the elusive Libby (Rachel Spaght), as she appears and disappears behind these scrims, a much more intriguing entity than the ill-dramatized controversy surrounding her. —Robin Dougherty