Story: June and Lurie Walker, an African-American professional couple, have worked hard to save the money required to buy a big house in suburban Boston, or at least the down payment. June says that they can eat “bread and margarine” for as long as it takes to gain a financial foothold, even though Lurie observes that people don’t really eat margarine anymore.
While working on their decidedly decrepit fixer-upper, Lurie finds a mass of hair under the floor under the upstairs bathroom. He wants to call the police, but June quashes that idea and instead insists that whatever is below the floor should stay there.
When Lurie asks his brother Leroy, a plumber, to repair some pipes in that bathroom, Leroy questions why June and Lurie felt the need to leave behind their previous neighborhood for one that is so isolated and so, well, white. It’s not a friendly neighborhood, either, since the Walkers haven’t seen a soul since their arrival in the town.
That changes one day when a teenage girl named Beatrice pops up at their place unannounced. She quickly makes herself at home, taking advantage of June’s hospitality. While the latter trepidatiously prepares the details for a house-warming party, Beatrice becomes increasingly brazen in her behavior and demands, especially for copious sweets washed down with milk.
She’s an odd duck, talking about American Bandstand and “Senator Kennedy” while dressed in bobby socks and clothes straight out of the 1950s. Lurie finds her suspicious and not a little disturbing.
As Beatrice’s quaint language and cavalier treatment of “Negroes” and “colored people” becomes more threatening and her powers more alarming, Lurie and June contemplate how to rid their home of this unexpected and dangerous presence.
Highlights: New artistic director Hana Sharif unveils the 2019-20 season of The Rep’s Studio Theatre with the world premiere of an arresting and thought-provoking ghost story filled with the specter of racism as well as the supernatural.
Other Info: Asked in a program interview to describe her chilling play in five words, playwright Kirsten Greenidge responded “Visceral. Clawing. Searing. Bitter...Historical.” That interview offers bountiful information about Greenidge and her Gothic tale, the first draft of which she wrote in 1999.
Feeding Beatrice has had several workshops since and now receives its world premiere at The Rep under the auspices of Sharif, who first encountered the story at Baltimore Center Stage.
Lurie and June not only contend with an unwelcome spirit in their dream home, but it’s one steeped in the history of racism in America. As such, Feeding Beatrice is terrifying on more than one level, something referenced in director Daniel Bryant’s incisive program note.
As Sharif observes in her own thoughts in the program, “In 1999...Kirsten was examining race politics in this country from a Gothic horror perspective – using the tools of the Hitchcockian suspense thriller to illuminate the subtle and visceral fears Black Americans live with on a daily basis.”
Like the film Get Out, which is referenced by both Sharif and Greenidge, Feeding Beatrice uses the Gothic fiction genre as a touchstone for underscoring lingering and long-term horrors wrought by slavery and other forms of subjugation and mistreatment of entire sectors of American society.
The Rep’s debut interpretation makes an immediate impact as one enters its “immersive theater” production. Lawrence E. Moten III’s brilliant scenic design begins at the entrance to The Rep’s Studio theater, a hallway decorated with creepy wallpaper and dim lights. The audience then sits on a ragtag collection of mismatched chairs on two sides of the stage.
That stage is dominated by a second level which sports the upstairs bathroom, complete with a tub and a sink. Downstairs is located the kitchen at the other end of the set, with doors at either end and even a window below the second-story bathroom.
It’s all eerily illuminated at times in various garish hues by lighting designer Jason Lynch, while sound designer David Kelepha Samba adds to the unsettling ambiance with numerous spooky touches. Costume designer Mika Eubanks dresses Beatrice in a ‘50s combination, Lurie and June in professional attire and Leroy in blue-collar garb.
Choreographer Heather Beal offers a disconcerting dance with Beatrice as Shirley Temple and Lurie as Bojangles in a disturbing demonstration of Beatrice’s power in ‘her’ house as well as tango moves by various players.
Bryant uses the entire set to lay out Greenidge’s social scares in the traditional ‘haunted house,’ and elicits strong performances from his quintet of players in this two-act presentation.
Lorene Chesley anchors the action as June, a woman who has put her career in a holding pattern while trying to latch onto the “American dream” through her new home. Nathan James does well as Lurie, a TV news writer who shares a common tragedy with June eventually revealed as well as harboring suspicions of Beatrice.
Ronald Emile nicely handles the lion’s share of comedy in this stark tale as Leroy, a capable plumber as well as a man with considerable common sense, while Allison Winn makes a marvelous turn as the deceptive and controlling Beatrice, whose sinister presence is accentuated with her disturbing history.
It’s problematic that June doesn’t find Beatrice’s dress and cultural references odd when they first meet apart from the latter’s use of “Negro” and “colored people” in her casual conversation. There’s also a confusing mention of Arkansas late in the play, even after Lurie is seen reading the Boston Globe and the story’s setting is suburban Boston.
All in all, though, Feeding Beatrice offers scares and chilling reflections on more than one level, well staged and cleverly crafted on a cold autumn night.
Play: Feeding Beatrice
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through November 24
Tickets: $46-$71; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jon Gitchoff