As a producer of new theatrical works, Central Works’ undertakings are always a crapshoot, but they usually beat the odds. In resident playwright Patricia Milton’s Bamboozled, they have tossed a winning number. With an interesting, detailed storyline full of twists and a cast of four outstanding women, this tale of race and morality in modern America grips and provokes from beginning to end.
Upon the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the naive pronounced racism dead. But electing one brilliant, charismatic black man whose policies are supported by a majority of our people does not meet that standard. Overt but usually disguised racism flourished during Obama’s administration as pathetic white supremacists now had a palpable threat to white dominance at which they could direct their vitriol. Presently, we have a president who is either racist or such a panderer to racists, that retrograde behavior has become more permissible and thus coarser and bolder.
Against this backdrop, the playwright has crafted a dramedy based on a true story in which an Antiques Roadshow appraiser bilked the descendent of a Confederate general out of a million dollars by undervaluing artifacts passed down to the descendent. But in Bamboozled, the appraiser is Abby, a black woman from Los Angeles. The action occurs in real time at a law office in Collierville, Tennessee. Throughout the happenings, a demonstration takes place outside on the square, where defenders of the mythology of the Old South are rallying against the removal of the statue of a Confederate general.
Abby had come to town with and at the request of her white boyfriend, Caleb, who is unseen. His aunt, Opal Anne, had a large collection of Civil War heirlooms that needed appraisal for sale. It just happens that Abby had found a successful specialization in the Civil War niche. Moreover, her family originated from the same area of Tennessee, so the visit would allow her to conduct genealogical research. Setting the stage for the drama, when Opal Anne had received $60,000 for her collection but found that a $1 million transfer of funds occurred associated with the sale, she issued separate civil suits against Abby and Caleb.
The four female characterizations are starkly defined, and their interactions drive the compact plot. But more than that, they delve into multiple forms of racism from egregious to unintended; need for and pride in cultural association; expression and consequences of sexual identity; and the consequences of self indulgence on others.
The clash of three of the women constitutes the main event. Abby is a modern black woman, brighter and more accomplished than the great bulk of the white supremacist types rallying on the square. Jeunée Simon deftly plays her with humorless determination in a manner that commands respect but not warmth. In the eyes of her attorney, she is just the type of assertive black that a local jury would like to convict. The attorney, Rochelle, represents a target herself as an indiscrete lesbian in a conservative community, whose more successful legal outcomes may rely on sleeping in all the right places rather than persuading juries. Stacy Ross is magnetic as she runs through expressions from smug arrogance to contrition in this multidimensional character. As a societal dignitary in a backward looking community, Susan Jackson plays Opal Anne beautifully as the cardboard character she is. An unreconstructed apologist for everything that was the antebellum South, her adherence to self-serving dogma is unswerving, and she doesn’t deign to acknowledge blacks unless it serves her purpose.
But the playwright did something very clever with the remaining role, exquisitely portrayed by Chelsea Bearce. Savannah, the character with whom we most empathize, works in the law office. Though she is not central to the three party conflict, as a black woman, she acts as the vehicle for revelation of the multitude of forms of discrimination and for the social consequences of the selfish behaviors of others. Smart and persevering, it is also Savannah who solves the mystery.
Although Patricia Milton was raised elsewhere, her family hailed from Tennessee, and included archetypes associated with Dixie. With her first hand knowledge and a writer’s eye for building a narrative from conflict to conflict, she has crafted a memorable play. It may rely a little too much on coincidences, but this is a small consideration in a thoroughly entertaining work.
Bamboozled is a world premiere written by Patricia Milton and produced by Central Works New Play Theater at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant St., Berkeley, CA and plays through March 18, 2018.