Hilarious ‘Nacirema Society’ delights audiences at Little Theatre of Alexandria

Pearl Cleage's entertaining and insightful play was inspired by early-20th-century African American social clubs.

This weekend, The Little Theatre of Alexandria opened The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First Hundred Years to an enthusiastic and receptive audience. The story follows the lives of six African American women who are members of the prestigious and exclusive Nacirema Society. Beginning in 1964, the play explores the themes of race, class, and gender in a rapidly changing America. Playwright Pearl Cleage was inspired to write The Nacirema Society after reading about African American social clubs that flourished during the early part of the 20th century. Originally commissioned and developed by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the play was met with critical acclaim and has been praised for its insightful depiction during a pivotal moment in American history.

Director Eleanore Tapscott masterfully brought this work to life. Through her impeccable direction, she expertly balanced the themes of tradition, family, and identity that are central to the story. Tapscott’s attention to detail is evident through well-timed comedic dialogue, the nuanced performances from the actors, and the pacing of the production. Her creative choices, such as the use of music from the 1960s during scene transitions, kept the audience in the play’s setting. The blend of expert direction, superb acting, and a thought-provoking storyline makes this a must-see for audiences.

Selina Tom-Johnson as Gracie Dunbar and Lisa Hill-Corley as Mrs. Grace Dubose Dunbar in ‘The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First Hundred Years.’ Photo by Matt Liptak.

The play opens with poised matriarch Mrs. Grace Dubose Dunbar (Lisa Hill-Corley) fussing over the debut of her youthful and excitable granddaughter Gracie Dunbar (Selina Tom-Johnson). Gracie’s life has been perfectly calculated: she is to marry childhood friend Bobby Green (Evin Howell) and attend Fisk University, the school her family has attended for years. Alpha Campbell Jackson (Jacquel R. Tomlin) presents the primary conflict of the play by blackmailing Grace Dunbar on the claim that she is the illegitimate daughter of the late Dr. Dunbar. Finally, we meet New York Times journalist Janet Logan (Kamilah Lawson), who has arrived to report on the Nacirema Society.

The multigenerational cast delivered a great performance, and it was evident how Tapscott worked to create a strong ensemble with harmonious interactions and energetic coordination. The obvious trust and mutual respect of the performers translated into effortless interplay enabling them to communicate with the audience effectively. Overall, the actors’ chemistry was a major contributing factor to the success of the performance as their collaborative spirit shone through.

Standout performances include Lisa Hill-Corely as Mrs. Grace Dubose Dunbar. Embodying the elegance and grace of the Nacirema Society, Hill-Corley successfully demonstrates how Mrs. Dunbar represents the strength and resilience of women in the face of adversity. Complementing Hill-Corley was the talented Robin Lynn Reaves playing Grace’s friend, Catherine Adams Green. Reaves skillfully conveys the complex emotions of Catherine, portraying her as a multifaceted character with conflicting desires and motivations. Both Hill-Corley and Reaves bring laughter to the audience with their impeccable comedic timing and delivery.

Jummy Lash’s ability to bring Lillie Jackson to life is both powerful and mesmerizing. Her performance brings subtlety to the role with every gesture, movement, and expression embodying the character. Another standout is Barbara Cooper, who plays the family maid, Jessie Roberts. It is a common understanding that an actor’s impact in performance is influenced by their lines and dialogue. Cooper’s role is entirely silent, but through her facial commentary and physical disagreements with Catherine, she proves that a memorable performance can be delivered with no dialogue.

Top: Jacquel Tomlin as Alpha Campbell Jackson and Robin Lynn Reaves as Catherine Adams Green; Bottom: (front row) Jummy Lash, Jacquel Tomlin, Lisa Hill-Corley, Selina Tom-Johnson; (back row) Barbara Cooper, Tiffany Morina, Kamilah Lawson, Kellie Santos-DeJesus, Juanisha Brooks, Robin Lynn Reaves, Evin Howell in ‘The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First Hundred Years.’ Photos by Matt Liptak.

The costumes, designed by Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley, are nothing short of spectacular, magically transporting the audience to 1964 Montgomery, Alabama, and informing them of the era’s social and cultural norms. Schlichting and Sibley created multiple costumes for each character, many of whom sport a new costume for every scene while maintaining an assigned color palette throughout the show. These vibrant, saturated colors enhance greater dynamic tension between characters. Schlichting and Sibley created a seamless harmony between the design and the story, as the clothing worked to build an immersive world.

The sound design, created by Dr. Victoria Brown and Ruben Vellekoop, brings another element of authenticity to the story by incorporating music between scene transitions and well-balanced and -leveled sound effects, ensuring actors could be heard effortlessly by the audience. Lighting design by JK Lighting (Jeffrey Scott Auerbach and Kimberly Crago) creates a warm atmosphere in the home, communicates the time of day, and effectively isolates lighting areas to communicate the separation of rooms in the set design by Ken Brown and Peter Mumford. During the performance, there were some noticeable sound and light cues that did not coincide with the events onstage. This reviewer is confident that these will be resolved for the remainder of the run.

The Nacirema Society is an excellent example of how art can both teach and entertain, presenting societal issues in a manner that is engaging and thought-provoking. Its ability to balance these two elements is a testament to the skill and talent of the production team and performers. With its witty dialogue, engaging plot twists, and memorable characters, The Nacirema Society is a must-see for theatergoers interested in both entertainment and social commentary.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, plus one 15-minute intermission.

The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First Hundred Years plays through June 24, 2023 (Wednesdays – Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3 pm), at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA. Tickets are $24 on weekends, $21 on weekdays. For tickets, call the box office at (703)-683-0496. Reserved-seating tickets are available online or at the door on performance days.

The program for The Nacirema Society is online here.

COVID Safety: LTA is mask optional in all their public spaces, including their auditorium. Though masking is now optional in their facilities, they support and encourage those who feel the need to continue to mask in public spaces.


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