Friday, March 25, 2016

Miss Julie, Clarissa and John" - A Soul-Shattering Drama Now Getting a World-Premier

Post-Reconstruction Virginia Plantation Serves as Locale for New Play at Pittsburgh Playwrights 

    I first got wind of "Miss Julie, Clarissa and John" by way of an email from a theater colleague. The missive came with a very enthusiastic review plus links to reviews by several other Pittsburgh critics, all of which extolled the show with great enthusiasm.
The drama, now getting a world premiere on the Pittsburgh Playwrights’ stage in Downtown Pittsburgh, is written by local playwright, Mark Southers, and the thought did cross my mind that the enthusiastic reviews may partly have been the result of  the zeal for wanting to support one of the city’s own.
Southers is the founder and artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, where he produced over 140 plays and one-acts since its beginning in 2003. Curious as hell about wanting to see the show that’s getting so much buzz, I caught a Friday evening performance that left me awestruck.
All the elements that make for good theater are there- excellent writing on the part of the playwright, scintillating direction by Monteze Freeland, a superb cast, appropriate costuming by Cheryl El-Walker and a set by Tony Ferrieri so authentic (the kitchen of a sharecropper’s cottage) it could have been lifted from the grounds of the Meadowcroft Museum of Rural Life in Avella or the Heinz Regional History Center.
If the Miss Julie portion of the title rings a bell, you might either have read or caught a performance of Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s "Miss Julie." Southers caught a performance of Strindberg’s classic drama while on a visit to Dublin, Ireland in 2008, and the experience inspired him to write a version based not in 1888 Sweden but in Virginia on a tobacco plantation several years after the close of the Civil War.

L-R  Tami Dixon as Miss Julie, Kevin Brown as John and Crystal Bates as Clarissa Photo Credit: Gail Manker

    Strindberg’s play deals with social and class distinctions and sexual mores of his era in his native country while Southers moves his to the Old South where folks were working out new social arrangements as a result of the recent abolition of slavery. It was a time when new found freedoms were under the gun of White supremacists not above using intimidation, lynching and other forms of coercion to perpetuate the older status quo.
    Top dog in what proves to be a triangle of entanglements is Miss Julie, the former plantation owner, a gal who seems to just want to have fun but whose fun sometimes takes on a sadistic hue. Tami Dixon plays her character brilliantly with mercurial temperament and a libido as strong a Blanche DuBois’ in "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Chrystal Bates as Clarissa and Kevin Brown Photo Credit" Gail Manker

 Putting up with her volatility are former slaves, Clarissa, the plantation owner’s cook who believes Miss Julie and she share a common father, who like Jefferson, had a taste for the allures of his African-American charges, and John, her common-law partner who tends to the bed-ridden master of the plantation, Captain Hodge, who we never see.
    While citing theatrical references, I might add that the play has a vague emotional similarity to the horror captured in the "Django Unchained," with Dixon serving as a surrogate for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, and that Southers’ writing has a certain August Wilsonesque malaise, even though the play is uniquely his own.
    Fascinating is the precarious tightrope walked on by Kevin Brown whose physically imposing John is shown flexing his muscles and testing the waters in post emancipation Virginia. Still cowered to a degree by his past servitude, he also displays considerable grit when confronting his would-be new master, Miss Julie, a gal with a taste for both brightly colorful clothes and dark desires.
    Enticed by Miss Julie’s advances, he’s well aware of the dangers that await if he succumbs to temptation and word gets out about his possible miscegenational adventures. Fueled by the festivities of a solstice celebration in which he dances a little too intimately with Miss Julie along with a follow up bout with a bottle of moonshine, the plot threatens to heat up and over the boiling point.
Tami Dixon and Chrystal Bates Photo Credit: Gail Manker
   Through all this travail, Clarissa patiently bears with her supposed half-sister’s egocentric demands, insults and flirtatious assault on her man, all the while fretting about the whereabouts of her long gone mother, the only person who can authentically verify her paternity. Chrystal Bates’ Clarissa is once intelligent and patient beyond belief, bearing her long-standing suffering with equanimity but eventually letting out some of her pent-up emotion in an intensely touching confrontation with Miss Julie.
    The ending is a brilliant catharsis that comes via an ironic, unexpected twist that settles some scores and dresses old wounds but yet doesn’t fully exorcise the demons that haunt the play from the very beginning.
Due to audience demand and critical reception, the play has been extended another week. If you go, you can join the ranks of those who’ve already seen the birth of a an important new work that has enough staying power to propel it and its gifted playwright on to what should be a very promising future.
    "Miss Julie, Clarissa and John"  is at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh through April 2. Phone 412-687-4686 or visit website

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