Over the course of a single day in 1953 Jefferson, Missouri, The Green Book follows the Davis household during the hours before and after Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois gives a speech at the local college. In order to help travelers, the Davis family has included as a tourist home in the Green Book, a guide created that lists safe travel places for African Americans.
Dan and Barbara Davis (Archie Lee Simpson and Donna Biscoe) have housed many travelers, but the night of Du Bois’ speech is the first time one of their guests is not an African American. Victor Lansky (Barry Stewart Mann), a Holocaust survivor, refuses to stay at a hotel that discriminates against African Americans and, therefore, becomes directed to the Davis’ home. Tensions rise in the household when Lansky and Keith Chenault (Neal A. Ghant), a friend of the Davis family, begin to converse.
Director Freddie Hendricks, along with Set Designer R. Paul Thomason and Props Designer Maclare “MC” Park, has created a warm, inviting atmosphere for the Davis’ home. The chemistry between Simpson’s Dan and Biscoe’s Barbara add to the home’s charm and complement playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey’s ideal picture of a Green Book tourist home. As we meet their characters, Simpson and Biscoe sparkle as they tease each other over their respective crushes on Lena Horne and Jackie Robinson.
The first act, while brisk in pace, is long in exposition and simply introduces the characters and themes for the riveting, emotional journey that will take place in the second act. A majority of the second act consists of a dialogue between Victor and Keith. During this scene, Keith and Victor discuss Victor’s past. Mann delivers a captivating and heartbreaking performance recounting his survival of Auschwitz.
At times, Ghant’s cavalier delivery of Keith’s questions to Victor is given so matter-of-factly that it makes his character seem unbelievable. A few subtle differences in tone, body language, or line delivery could have made the character seem sympathetic to the audience.
In addition to the talents of Mann, Simpson and Biscoe, Veanna Black, as Dan and Barbara’s daughter Neena, deserves special recognition. Early in the play, she charms with a special birthday song for Keith. However, her true shining moment is during the scene between Victor and Keith, where unbeknownst to them, she listens in the kitchen. Without speaking for the entire scene, she lets her facial expressions of shock, confusion and sadness tell what she would say if she was part of the conversation.
The portrayal of the wrongs of prejudice is front and center in this play, but perhaps Ramsey’s underlying theme of greed haunts the audience the most. As someone working to help expand the Green Book, Keith has the opportunity to influence and help many people, yet he is more concerned with how to profit from segregation and doesn’t see a need for it to end. By exclaiming, “Segregation can last forever,” Keith shows the detrimental effects greed can cause in situations that are already unjust.
Ramsey’s message leaves a lasting impression on the audience. However, while the audience finds resolve in his message, there is not resolution with the characters that he so masterfully crafted. The audience has connected with these people and emotionally invested so much into them that there needs to be some resolution.
One of the most important plays currently being produced in Atlanta, The Green Book serves not only to educate on a period of the Jim Crow era that many have either forgotten or never heard of but also as a caution against the destruction that greed can cause in any situation. Poignantly acted, Theatrical Outfit’s The Green Book is a worthwhile theatrical experience that will benefit all those who see it.
The world premiere of The Green Book runs through September 11 at the Balzer Theatre at Herren’s. For tickets and more information, please visit Theatrical Outfit’s website.
– A. Wesley