Florence Gibson’s poetic and moving study of black-white relations in the years after the Civil War generated strictly Canadian interest during its original 2000 run, but this stunning revival should bring it a wider audience. With its small cast, unit setting and profoundly resonant material, this show is a natural for regional theaters throughout North America, and could even be considered for Main Stem production as well.
Gibson follows five characters — three black, two white — on their personal and political journeys during the contentious period of Reconstruction. Every kind of freedom is on the table: the right of women and blacks to vote, as well as the lingering issues of personal liberty that the Emancipation Proclamation made possible, but not probable. But this is not merely a political work, and Gibson also looks deeply at the forces that bind people together or drive them apart, regardless of color.
Her central figure is Belle, a poor Southern black woman who heads North with her idealistic husband, Bowlyn. They rapidly find that no promised land awaits them, and the poverty and oppression they encounter is every bit as soul-destroying as it was in the South. The one thing that nourishes Belle is her growing friendship with Nance, a suffragette who dreams of women and blacks all getting the vote together.
However, as political and personal realities set in, the women are driven apart. Nance loses her struggle, destroying her life and Belle’s marriage by a one-night stand with Bowlyn. Belle flees back home to the South, and the final curtain finds all the play’s characters searching for meaning and forgiveness against a bleak landscape of shattered dreams.
Gibson’s writing is richly textured, turning to actual poetry at times, but it never seems artificial or inappropriate. And though the author is white, the issue of cultural appropriation has not become an issue in either production.
Ken Gass has staged the play with great fluidity on a striking unit set by Julia Tribe — all rough-hewn planks and coarse cotton panels. Bonnie Beecher’s atmospheric lighting helps in shifting time and place with great ease.
The three leading roles Gibson provides are meaty ones, and the cast does them justice. Yanna McIntosh brings great passion to Belle, all the more effective because she knows how to hold it in reserve. Soo Garay is heartbreakingly self-destructive as Nance, and Nigel Shawn Williams brings to life the misguided dreamer Bowlyn.
Any criticism would involve the two remaining minor roles, which are sketchily written by Gibson, though Alex Poch-Goldin and Karen Robinson try hard to do them justice.
“Belle” is that rare creature: a Canadian play that ought to do better in the U.S. market. It deserves a long life.