It's tempting to think that we learned everything we needed to know about the Civil Rights Movement in grade school. Especially since the institutionalization of honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. with a day alongside Washington and Lincoln, we can content ourselves with knowing the essential folklore of cherry trees and silver dollars, the Gettysburg Address and "I Have a Dream." The calendars promise a day off from work and one day, department stores will mark the occasion by luring customers down their aisles with civil rights sales.
Waiting to be Invited, a world premiere production at the Denver Center Theater Company, travels back in time to when those same department stores served as the tension-filled fields of battle upholding desegregation. The play finds its power by shedding light on everyday characters, four friends meeting for lunch. These are subtle heroines, women who struggle with the import of walking into an Atlanta department store for a salad and some fish sticks. There are no mob scenes, no fire hoses. Audiences unfamiliar with the environment of Atlanta in 1961 may never fully understand the daunting task these women posed for themselves, but by the end of the play we can't help but understand how difficult it is to fear no evil when a table is prepared in the presence of one's enemies.
When the lights come up, we are in the dressing room of a toy factory. Miss Odessa is in a slip, stepping into a fine white dress as she silently prepares herself for an earth-shaking lunch hour. Playwright S.M. Shephard-Massat's opening image emphasizes the character's vulnerability, making us privy to the intimate moment of transition, when the character takes the extra care in preparing a face to meet the faces of this day. She dons the armor of her Sunday best, trying to let anticipation and adrenaline fuel the courage she needs to outweigh her fears.
Bill Curley's set helps director Israel Hicks create the atmosphere of the day, thoroughly replicating the working interior of the bus and augmenting the effect with Sam Gill on upright bass and Warren Smith on xylophone. Gill provides the sound of the bus, idling and accelerating as the entire stage revolves with the vehicle's movement, and Smith creates the personality, race, gender, and appearance of a half dozen invisible characters through his interpretative licks on the xylophone.
The cast is peerless, with Broadway veterans Lynette Du Pre (Bring in da Noise/Bring in da Funk), Candy Brown Houston (Pippin), Ebony Jo-Ann (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) and Michele Shay (Seven Guitars) defining the characters. Jo-Ann's Miss Odessa is the most dynamic of the four leads, using sharp wit and brassy bravado to mask her doubts. Jo-Ann makes music out of monologues, riffing on her lines like a soloing saxophonist, turning speech into a percussion instrument to beat down her adversaries.
Shay's Miss Ruth, the minister's wife, brings her paralyzing fear to life, theorizing that if she goes into Marshes for lunch, she'll be poisoned, jailed or cut up. "Dontcha get it yet?" she asks her friends. "It might not be blunt on a piece a paper, 'kill the nigga,' per se, but it's still on people's hearts and in their minds, and deep down we all know that. You can't put a gun to a dog's head and make him stop eatin' just cause you say 'hold it.'" Shay pierces through any defenses the audience still maintains, stripping away the facade of subtlety and wrestling with passionate hysterics over the decision to risk her life to order salad. "I'm not Coretta!" she pleads defensively, begging to be excused from the task before her.
Houston's Miss Delores deftly navigates the turbulent waters that reduce her steadfast character to disillusion and terror, and it is ultimately Du Pre's quiet determination as Miss Louise that reunites the women to stand together and share their challenge. Du Pre is brilliantly understated throughout the performance, patient and unassuming, but she comes to a boil beneath the surface with the conviction that she wants "to be like Coretta, one of those brave women marching beside their man into the shadow of death." Miss Louise's decision to take bold action rather than simply think bold thoughts is the extraordinary act of heroism that lifts everday audiences out of their seats and, perhaps, out of their minds and up in arms.