The Emancipation of Alabaster McGill
by Jeff Goode
directed by Eric Curtis Johnson
T.U. (Theatre Unlimited) in NoHo
through June 19
Politically active playwright Jeff Goode is attempting to stir up further reaction against Prop 8 and the ban on gay marriage in his new world premiere play The Emancipation of Alabaster McGill by presenting homosexuality in a completely different context. He takes us back in time to 1863 and the eve of "The Emancipation Proclamation", whereby Lincoln freed the slaves. In a little border town in Kentucky, there's a lot more going on than anyone would possibly expect. This is the South, where Lincoln was hated, and if abolition was favored, it was hidden. Abolitionists had underground railroads that took slaves to the North, but they denied their existence. No one wanted to see a black man receive equality. Just like no one wanted to admit to some sexual hanky-panky between men, but it went on in the confines of the barn. Full-fledged hypocrisy was rampant and is now on display at Theatre Unlimited (T.U.) in NoHo in Goode's funny but overdone The Emancipation of Alabaster McGill.
The play has an overabundance of camp. It is fun to witness two white boys Ethan and Evan (Brett Fleisher and Matt Valle respectively), Evan from a neighboring but "outsider" town, mask their sexual attraction to one another via whittling and casual comraderie. Goode's allusions to the inconveniences of redefining freedom provide many laughs, to be sure. McGill, the black slave (Arden Haywood) of Captain Avner Pillicock (James Sharpe) does not appear until the top of Act II, the day of the actual "Emancipation Proclamation", and Alabaster is sitting whittling on the porch with the others - a place previously reserved for whites only. When regular visitors Deacon Chickory (Nathaniel Stanton), Deputy Lynch (Jude Evans) and grocer Baggot (Frank Ensenberger) come by, it takes them a while before they notice that McGill is sitting there amongst them - "OMG! He's a black man!" More big laughs! The purpose of the play is to show the lack of education of these simple town folk who stand against equality for minorities, but somehow Goode hammers and beats the whole concept to death with too much repetition. Of course, these people would idiotically repeat and holler their objections, but theatrically it's much too over-the-top. Of all the objectors, Deacon Chickory comes off the funniest, perhaps due to the casting of Nathaniel Stanton. With his contorted facial expressions and bizarre stories about his wife chained to the stove and each crumpled and dazed appearance after sliding down the muddy slope from his home - he is told repeatedly by the others that he needs to build a staircase - Stanton makes this stubborn character a hoot and a half. His speech about the Bible's abominations is absurdly hilarious. The entire play, nonetheless, as with many satirical works, goes too far and could stand some pruning and fine tuning. Even with comedy, less is more.
That aside, standouts from the rest of the cast include Sharpe as Pillicock, with an almost Kevin Costner-like sincere delivery, Haywood as Alabaster and Fleisher and Valle stealing their scenes as the younger, more genuinely innocent members of the brood. Director Eric Curtis Johnson offers good snappy pacing throughout.
I must say that I enjoyed the play, but at its current length it becomes somewhat tedious. Make some cuts and tone down some of the repetitious behavior! Is it really necessary to have grocer Baggot come back a second time with another proclamation to form another union? The first was enough comedically. As is, it's an audience pleaser and is bound to appeal to most gays and also to avid TV fans of Hee Haw and other silly shows that poke fun at our eccentric southern neighbors. As far as Prop 8 is concerned I agree with Goode and love the parallels I see between the stupidity of these folks and that of our modern day objectors, who quote the bible for the only true definition of marriage.