RACISM IS NO laughing matter, but human beings are. We are profoundly laughable, particularly when deadly serious, and at best our deepest beliefs are wildly improbable. Irrational, emotional, contradictory: human.
That's the condition playwright Preston Jones brings to The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, the first in a trilogy of plays about the inhabitants of the nowhere Texas town of Bradleyville. It's "a small, dead West Texas town in the middle of a big, dead West Texas prairieäThe new highway has bypassed it and now the world is trying to," Jones writes.
Live Theatre Workshop introduced this notorious Jones town and some of its richly drawn characters last season, with the eponymous play about Bradleyville native and single mom, Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander (the first penned, but usually the second of the three plays to be performed). Judging by the mutual admiration of both audience and company for the material, we can expect the final installment, The Oldest Living Graduate, to make its way to the Workshop stage in due course.
For this run, we're back in 1962, in a shabby upstairs meeting room in a run-down hotel. The décor is faded and dated, part lodge den and part Sunday school surplus. The highlights among the mismatched chairs and weathered flags are a wooden podium and an enormous, wall-mounted cross made of light bulbs. A young black man is quietly sweeping the floor when Rufe and Olin, knighted members in their late 20s in this production, burst on the scene with dueling colloquialisms about a game of horseshoes gone sour. We know almost instantly this argument has been smoothed and polished by a lifetime of repetition, a running theme in the Bradleyville repertoire.
Slowly the other characters trickle in: embittered tavern owner Red Grover; middle-aged supermarket manager and Knights ringleader L.D.; 31-year-old Texaco attendant and town drunk Skip Hampton; the aforementioned cotton farmer Olin Potts; and Milo Crawford, a bow-tie wearing milquetoast who clerks at the feed store and runs errands for his mama--a subject of ridicule among his fellow knights.
Rufe Phelps, a refinery worker in this boom-bust town, has recruited the first potential new member in five years, a glad-handing pipe-fitter from neighboring Silver City, who thinks he's in for a rousing night of whiskey drinking and dominos. What ensues, instead, is the kind of head-on collision between gossip, grudges, history, family, patriotism and hilarity that can only happen in a town so small the inhabitants aren't just familiar, they're actually extended family.
The final character is the show-stealing Colonel Kincaid, a feisty U.S. Army veteran of both World Wars. He's a fallen patriarch, outpaced by advancing age, ambitious sons, and a war he relives without warning. The Colonel has the distinction of being the most addled and the most articulate of the bunch, and it's through his eyes and interruptions that the contradictory relationship between Southern blacks and whites is most artfully expressed.
This all-male cast of characters--mouth-breathers, braggarts and mama's boys, mostly--are a white-minded group of small-town men, united by an oath to "preserve the ideals of (their) Southern heritage." They founded the order of the Knights in "nineteen-ought-two," leader L.D. tells us, "because anyone who has to put on a white sheet to kick a coon's ass is a damn fool."
The play's two acts are rife with unforgettable lines--the dying art of Southern colloquy combined with the kind of entrenched ignorance we'd like to believe has been educated and legislated out of existence. You don't have to look any farther than "liberal" California, which recently eliminated its affirmative-action statutes, to see that skin color is as convoluted as ever in this country, even in "sophisticated" society.
Jones, a Westerner out of Albuquerque who emigrated to Texas in the early '60s, has both the receptivity and optimism of an outsider in crafting his characters and dialog. He comes from a cultural distance which ultimately translates to empathy for all his characters, regardless of race and gender. "A Texas Trilogy" draws from his experiences in Colorado City, Texas, and he credits the Knights in particular as being the most difficult challenge for actors. Timing is everything in this script; and to their credit, the Live Theatre cast pulls it off with panache. They really seem to relish their roles.
Because the delivery is so easy, it leaves the audience plenty of room to grapple with the text's underlying issues--the pervasive, and equally racist, depiction of white Southerners as racist bigots, for one; and the slippery slope between tradition and social evolution. Though the play engages its audience with provocative language and familiar stereotypes, its tale aims for greater introspection than the "we're different from them" dichotomy.
In a way, race here is a red herring. This play is really about language, which is why it retains such vitality more than 20 years later. We aren't the same audience Jones was writing for in 1976, but in a way we're more his audience. References to "uppity niggers" are as arcane in this part of the country as a phrase like, "He wouldn't pass up a drink if he had to squeeze it out of an armadillo's ass." Not that we're all more enlightened; we just don't speak that way. The challenge here is to distinguish between funny and sad; it's the difference between laughing with the playwright, and laughing at a stereotype.
In a 1978 interview (from the published New London series), Jones explains, "I mourn the loss of the passing of anything, tradition especially. Of course, you could say look at all the bad things, but look at all the good things, too." In "A Texas Trilogy" he doesn't portray the past as glorious, but he captures with dignity the conflict of losing it, even when his characters are less than admirable, or themselves undignified.
About the language, Jones says, "(It) came out of a common sense kind of situation rather than an academic oneäpeople just don't use ('country sayings') anymore. Younger people that see my show are fascinated by them, but they don't know them in their original context."
They'll certainly get a taste of that in Knights.
LTW artistic director James Mitchell Gooden is clearly an admirer of Jones', and directs a strong production here. He makes two utilitarian casting choices, however, that give the LTW production a subtle twist. As points of interest, they bear noting. For one, Rufe and Olin were originally cast as elder peers of the late-40s L.D. and Red. Here, they represent a new generation of Knights, young men seemingly under 30. Rather than represent a dying breed, the Knights here come across as a multi-generational misunderstanding.
The second is that Ramsey-Eyes, the hotel's black custodian, was written as a 75-year-old man, a peer of the Colonel's. Here he's cast, and played, as a young man. And whereas in the original he also speaks with a heavy Southern patois, here he's the only cast member who doesn't. If you see the play, you'll understand in the final scene why this is significant.
On a final note, hopes for a speedy recovery to actor Phil O'Hearn. He played an irresistable Colonel Kincaid in the show's opening weeks, and has this reviewer hoping to see him next season as The Oldest Living Graduate. Director Gooden, who we hear is a talented actor in his own right, will step in as understudy for the remainder of this production.
If you haven't seen Live Theater this season, The Last Meetingä is just that, until fall. Strong acting, strong language and a strong subtext of integrity make it one Klan meeting you definitely shouldn't shy away from attending.
The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia continues through July 2 at Live Theater Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $11, or $10 for students and seniors. Call 327-4242 for reservations and information.