Life in Atlanta during the 1950s offered a bitter stew of promise and prejudice for African-Americans, concludes S.M. Shephard-Massat in her new play, “Starving.” These inherent conflicts create an eye-opening portrait as underscored by the earnest tenants of a small apartment building, waging personal battles against racism and other demons.
Premiering at Woolly Mammoth Theater, Shephard-Massat’s witty and revealing treatise unfolds at a leisurely pace. Eartha Kitt sings “Lazy Afternoon” as the play opens on Daniel Ettinger’s functional two-story set, an apartment stoop in a prosperous but segregated neighborhood. Characters are introduced one by one, including a male bakery worker, a single female teacher, a Pullman porter and his innocent young bride.
It quickly becomes apparent that the building’s strongest residents are its vibrant women, bursting with enthusiasm yet starved for opportunity. “A college education and the ability to quote Shakespeare don’t buy a ticket out of discrimination,” grumbles one character, speaking for all.
Shephard-Massat, whose “Waiting to Be Invited” has seen several productions, displays a keen eye for colorful and incisive dialogue as she peers into the souls of these women, each embroiled in her own private saga. If she seems especially comfortable with the turf explored here and the depth of the characterizations, there is good reason: The situation is taken from the author’s own childhood memories, and the characters are patterned after real-life neighbors and relatives. Director Seret Scott presents them all with the care and sympathy one might expect of so personal a journey.
Superbly filling assigned roles are Lizan Mitchell as the building’s irascible matriarch, Dawn Ursula as the quiet and determined teacher and Bethany Butler as the addicted daughter next door. Among the men, Craig Wallace is just right as the kind and patient gardener, symbol of rural black America’s arrival in the city. J. Paul Nicholas is memorable as the deceitful tenant, while Doug Brown convinces as the henpecked husband.
Playwrights who embrace broad themes of racial inequality invite inevitable comparisons with August Wilson, who surely provided inspiration. In this instance, the writer’s message is also revealed methodically by an ensemble of articulate souls, building in intensity to its climax.
But unlike Wilsonian dramas, this play’s big moments don’t result from a cohesive buildup but instead are the eruptions of individual subplots boiling at their own pace. It’s almost as if Shephard-Massat was so focused on giving each character his or her due that she neglected a central story. But the play stands firmly on its own as a compelling tapestry with relevance today.
“Starving” represents a departure from Woolly Mammoth’s typical diet of contempo absurdist fare. The company stretches its boundaries to accommodate this welcome new voice, and to broaden its base in the D.C. community from its fancy new home on D Street.