Gallery production crosses racial lines

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 18, 2004

AHOSKIE – It’s a simple, but yet complicated journey through perhaps some of the rockiest roads to ever dot the landscape of American history.

Playwright Sheri Bailey’s &uot;Southern Girls&uot; will come alive on the Gallery Theatre stage beginning at 8 p.m. tonight (Thursday). The production repeats at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday followed by a 2:30 p.m. matinee performance on Sunday. Tickets are available in advance or at the Gallery box office.

&uot;Southern Girls&uot; follows the lives of six ladies from their childhoods in the 1950’s until the late 80’s.

Set against a period of American history that chronicles the final moments of the last millennium, the play was originally crafted with Bailey writing the black keys while cohort Dura Temple covered the white.

The two discussed the structure of the play, which was divided into phases, starting with the girls as six and seven-year- olds.

Bailey and Temple wrote separately, got together to exchange pages and to discuss the next phase (early teens).

This process continued until the final scene when all six women appeared together in tableau.

The play was set in Birmingham, Alabama for the purpose of using historical snapshots as reference points for the characters. As a result, every major and not-so-major issue from abortion to Watergate gets at least a passing mention. From atomic bomb shelters in the 1950’s through the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s with a giant leap forward in the 1970’s, &uot;Southern Girls&uot; uses the tapestry of American history as the backdrop to these universal, yet achingly personal portraits of six women and the lives they live.

Gallery veteran Jennifer Joyner directs the Ahoskie performance. Local high school students Courtney Price (cast as Charlotte), Keyanda Thompson (Wanda Sue), Shaquonda Majette (Ruth), Sheresa Elliot (Naomi), Catherine Parker (June-Adele) and Kerstyn Velazquez (Dolly) perform marvelous jobs in depicting the teen years of the cast of characters. Their adult counterparts are equally as impressive – Betty Joyner (June-Adele), Dee-Dee Oakley (Charlotte), Julie Shields (Dolly), Andrea Gatling (Ruth) and Abbey Askew (Wanda Sue).

Elliot, Gatling and Askew are each making their Gallery debuts in &uot;Southern Girls.&uot;

Bailey made the power of family as the dominant theme in &uot;Southern Girls.&uot; There is a strong sense of sisterhood, even across racial lines, when the audience first meets these six girls, whose bonds of geography and culture bind, regardless of race or class.

Indeed, there are two sets of sisters.

Ruth and Naomi are full sisters who are heavily influenced by their off-stage family members (especially an older brother whose lynching, shown on a video running in the background area of the stage, closes act one).

The bi-racial Wanda-Sue and Charlotte are half-sisters.

They share the same father, who is married to Charlotte’s mother whom he eventually leaves for Wanda-Sue’s mother, the family maid.

The play contains limited adult language as well as indirect violence (video shown in the background). Therefore, it is not recommended for children.

&uot;Southern Girls tells the stories of six women born and raised in a world that revered and oppressed them in varying degrees, no matter their color or class,&uot; said Bailey, who will make a special appearance at the Gallery during Sunday’s performance.

She continued, &uot;Black and white come together in Southern Girls to make clear that today’s Dixie is more than race.

These six women, sharing the joys and sorrows of their lives, speak to the universality of sisterhood and despite the ‘great racial divide’ we are all empowered.&uot;

Bailey – a native of Portsmouth, Va. – is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and has taught at the University of Southern California and Old Dominion University. She currently teaches at Tidewater Community College and the Hampton Roads Governor’s School for the Arts.

She is a three-time nominee for Best Playwright for the NAACP Theatre Image Awards. Some of her plays have been produced around the country. Screenplay adaptations of two of those productions – &uot;All Kinds of Blue&uot; and &uot;Dannie&uot; – have been optioned by Jasmine Guy and Halle Berry respectively.

Bailey is the founder and Executive Director of the Juneteenth Festival Company, which observes the end of slavery in America.