7/21/2019 SWEET WATER TASTE Horizon Theatre
COOL, COOL WATER
Gloria Bond Clunie’s Sweet Water Taste is a curious construction, a play that is ostensibly about how race impacts family and social interactions. It also happens to be an over-the-top comedy, filled to the brim with carefully calculated muggery and exaggeration, a sensitive (and heartbreaking) story of family loss and grief, a sly commentary on the Thomas Jefferson / Sally Hemings brouhaha, and, in the final analysis, an ironically sensitive ghost story. That it succeeds at all with all these whiplash-inducing shifts in mood and style is a minor miracle. That it succeeds so well is a tribute to Ms. Clunie’s amazingly clever and intelligent script, to the brilliant direction of Thomas W. Jones II, and to the Horizon design team and acting ensemble, filled with Atlanta actors we have seen often and appreciated always.
We are in the recent past, the “Age of Obama,” a small town in North Carolina. Elijah Beckford (LaParee Young) is the patriarch of the “African-American” branch of the Beckford family. Owner of a funeral home, he has his own near-death experience, during which he envisions his ancestor, the matriarch of his “branch” of the family and slave to the patriarch of the “other” branch. To whom she bore four children. All she wants is a monument in the family cemetery, a plot of land that has always denied admittance to her progeny.
Elijah recovers, and goes to the patriarch of that other branch, Charlie Beckford, a successful landowner, and “keeper of the keys” to the family plot. It does not go well. Charlie willingly accepts Elijah as his (distant) cousin, but just doesn’t want his “kind” in the family plot. Since Elijah’s daughter is a lawyer, things will end up before a judge. Maybe.
All this conflict is played with over-the-top humor and anger and slapstick involving both men sneaking ribs and bourbon shots (both were recent survivors of vague heart or stroke conditions and are on strict diets) and both men going into fits of rage that will lead to nothing good healthwise.
So, it’s up to the Beckford Wives, Iola and Elizabeth (the exquisitely perfect Jen Harper and Lala Cochran) to calm the waters and put the two men in a room together until things are resolved. I won’t say they are resolved, I won’t say they aren’t. Just know that the play ends with a beautifully ironic action involving a top-of-the-line mahogany casket and a long-desired well that Charlie digs, right in the middle of Elizabeth’s fanatically raised and tended flower garden (the better to enjoy that “Sweet Water Taste” of well water that highlighted his childhood). And there are (eventually) more ghosts than you can hide with a confederate-flag blanket.
Throughout, Ms. Clunie’s script keep things grounded by relating tragedies experienced by both families – Elijah’s son-in-law dying young, Charlie and Elizabeth’s daughters drowning young – and Ms. Cochran has a from-the-heart to-our-guts monologue near the end about their daughters and why she is so obsessed with her flower garden. All the characters, though over-the-top in their stubbornness and anger, never go beyond-the-pale, and are rooted in recognizable behaviors and dimensions. The “next generation” – Enoch King and Brittani Minnieweather as Elijah and Iola’s grown children (Nathan and Bianca) and Justin Walker as Charlie and Elizabeth’s slacker son (Charlieboy) – eventually carries the “heavy lifting” of “moving on,” perhaps becoming a real family, prickly sometimes, but blended nonetheless.
And that’s the true strength of this script – it presents us with seven characters (eight if you count ancestor Carrie, also played by Ms. Minnieweather), all of whom are recognizable, all of whom show characteristics we all share, all of whom are recognizable as family, family well-suited and diametrically opposed, family bound in respect and prone to disrespect, family filled with all the ambivalences that characterize, well, family.
More to the point, Mr. Jones NEVER lets the over-the-top humor undercut the patina of realism exhibited by the actors and their characterizations. Yes, we get broad-based humor that makes us wince and giggle (there is an “N-Bomb” at one point that is instantly retracted – the point being that anger brings out our worst sides), but we also get reminders about why the stakes are so high for these people.
And it’s a beautiful-to-watch production. Set Designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have done their usual magic, giving us a dust-sheet draped hospital room at the start that quickly becomes Charlie and Elizabeth’s living room, complete with elegant furnishings and French doors that give us a (frustratingly flower-less) glimpse of Elizabeth’s garden. (Kudos to Props Designer Alexis McKay for some nicely family-centric set dressings as well as TWO Confederate Flag shrouds … I mean lap blankets … as well as a beautifully realized “Family Tree” blanket that Iola “beings to the parry.” Mary Parker’s Lighting Design nicely navigates all the various times-of-day transitions, as well as a thunderstorm, a blackout, and, well, not to drop too many spoilers, but an abstract “afterlife” space.
So, (especially this week), charges of “racism” are dropped, denied, condemned, and over- or under- used depending on your perspective. It should be obvious (and I fear it’s not) that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” but when the word is tossed about, people clam up, shut down, and lose any empathy they have with an “other.” IMHO, everyone seems to be ending the conversation at the exact point it needs to start. But “racism” is a loaded term – everyone knows it’s bad to be a racist, and no one wants to be “bad.”
Sweet Water Taste is a good starting point for a conversation about race, simply because laughter (and tears) are wonderful unifiers. Maybe if it inspires us to examine what makes us uncomfortable, what makes us angry, and what we are personally blind to, it will do much more than all the Tweets and Op-Eds and Late-Night monologues could ever hope to do --- get us communicating.
And that would be a Sweet Cool Water Taste that would go down easier than cold well water on a hot Georgia Day.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #htcSWEETWATER)