Tamarra Graham (L) and Olivia Cristina Delgado at the Sierra Madre Playhouse (Photo - Gina Long).

      Tamarra Graham (L) and Olivia Cristina Delgado at the Sierra Madre Playhouse (Photo – Gina Long).

      Here are the top five reasons to check out Sierra Madre Playhouse’s Bee-luther-hatchee this weekend!

      By Melanie Hooks

      The small five-actor ensemble led by Tamarra Graham (Shelita Burns) makes Thomas Gibbons’s rarely-seen story pulse with life and genuine emotion.

      1- Feel Deeply

      (L-R) Tamarra Graham, Leilani Smith, and Jon Sprik in the "Bee-luther-hatchee" play at the Sierra Madre Playhouse (Photo - Gina Long).

      (L-R) Tamarra Graham, Leilani Smith, and Jon Sprik in the “Bee-luther-hatchee” play at the Sierra Madre Playhouse (Photo – Gina Long).

      The premise: Shelita Burns has made her publishing career a success by championing a series that republishes African-American voices long out of print, and its breakout success, the only new work, makes her especially proud – a memoir of a Southern, black, 72-year old woman, Libby Price. Libby’s condition is that she remains off the grid and allowed to avoid the press. When the book wins a major literary award and thus gains Shelita a big promotion to a bigger print house, Shelita can’t resist the urge to seek out Libby in person. *Minor Spoiler – Libby isn’t a 72-year old African-American woman at all. Now Shelita must cope with her own complicity in presenting an inauthentic voice – but one that convinced everyone, including herself, that it was. Graham brings admirable depth to the character, which might have been played with one-note anger, but instead maintains her morality and humanity, displaying compassion for her deceiver without taking on the responsibility for soothing another’s conscience.

      Shelita feels this ruse personally. Yet another someone has stolen the American black experience for personal profit, silencing the real author. Shelita holds her line even as the writer fights to convince her that the love for the character, the connection with readers, is real. The one artistic success of the writer’s life is what’s being stolen, the one time the artist managed to share actual love and pain with others. There were more than one set of tears around the playhouse by the end of the second act, as both characters can’t possibly win, and both hearts are laid out on the line.

      The fantastic supporting cast includes Olivia Cristina Delgado as Shelita’s engaging and challenging best friend, Leilani Smith as the fictional memoir character of Libby Price whose story plays out in everyone’s imaginations behind beautiful Aaron Douglas-inspired Deco scrims, and Jon Sprik as the reporter who pushes Shelita to disclose the truth about Libby, as well as the memoir character Robert, a naïve but well-meaning white Southern man whose help brings Libby as much pain as aid. Finally, Christian Lebano manages to portray both modern white male privilege as well as haunting personal pain as Sean Leonard – the apologist. Far from a perfect character, Leonard loves the fictional Libby just as deeply as the misled Shelita. Their tug-of-war over authorship becomes a no-holds-barred fight for that love. Unless we the audience feel that love, we don’t care about the result. Both Graham and Lebano deliver ten-fold.

      Great drama only works when we feel it. The excellent Sierra Madre troupe is a credit to director Saundra McClain’s mandate (as quoted by Graham) – ‘no mugging.’ Authentic emotion only. Questions around who can and should tell people’s stories, particularly marginalized ones, are heavily political. But the play’s job is to make us inhabit the skins of those stories, and McClain and her actors gift us with a night of deeply affecting theater.

      2- Find Insight

      Tamarra Graham and Jon Sprik (Photo - Gina Long).

      Tamarra Graham and Jon Sprik (Photo – Gina Long).

      If you’re in the market for nuanced conversation, the kind that exists outside social media flame wars, this is your show. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the debate of “Bee-luther-hatchee” leads to a foregone conclusion, but thankfully, that’s not the case. Gibbons’ script is that rare show that presents multiple, changing points of view around complicated social topics but doesn’t devolve into a mouthpiece for any one voice. Instead, it asks questions of the audience.

      Every performance is followed by a guided audience conversation with the artists. Last Friday night’s facilitator was Jervey Tervalon, a local author raised in South Central L.A. and now teaching creative writing for the University of California Santa Barbara. He also serves as the Literary Director of LitFest Pasadena and Founder/Director of Literature for Life, a program that gets contemporary and diverse literature into school programs. He’ll be there again this coming Friday and Sunday and is exactly the sort of good neighbor you might not have known but are glad to meet. Which brings us to #3.

      3- Support Important Local Artists

      Olivia Cristina Delgado (L) and Tamarra Graham (Photo - Gina Long).

      Olivia Cristina Delgado (L) and Tamarra Graham (Photo – Gina Long).

      You’ve probably heard of Geffen Playhouse’s current revival of the landmark 1978 Chicano show “Zoot Suit,” the show largely credited for propelling Latino stories into the American theater mainstream. That show received just one of four national grants from The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation – and so did Sierra Madre Playhouse for “Bee-luther-hatchee.”

      Artistic Director Christian Lebano (also appearing as Sean Leonard) credits the grant for the show’s existence. “I’ve long wanted to do [this play],” he told the audience after the show. But the Playhouse Board felt it would lose too much money. The common adage is that plays about race don’t do well at the box office. Alas, their prediction about lower attendance is proving true. Respectable, but not full, houses greet this wonderful show every night. If the Playhouse didn’t have the grant support, it’s doubtful the run would have lasted.

      Roles this juicy and nuanced are rare, and the real treat is for the audience – to sit back and enjoy amazing actors fill the room with their wholeness.

      4- Get Inspired

      Christian Lebano andTamarra Graham (Photo - Gina Long).

      Christian Lebano andTamarra Graham (Photo – Gina Long).

      If you’re among the many right now asking what you can do to help support positive social change, here’s a solid action. Buy the ticket. Show up. Prove that people don’t just talk about wanting a better world, they’re happy to support it. Give the artistic community the courage to do more than sit on the sidelines. Show them you’ll help them keep the doors open when they’re brave.

      5- Meet Your Neighbors

      Leilani Smith and Jon Sprik (Photo - Gina Long).

      Leilani Smith and Jon Sprik (Photo – Gina Long).

      Many of us bemoan the isolation of the digital age. You needn’t. Not as long as community venues like Sierra Madre Playhouse make a home for us all to gather, enjoy great art and get to know one another offline. You can make a lot of friends over $1 Intermission snacks and coffee. And who knows? You might just find a way to bolster your soul.

      There you have it!

      • Directed by Saundra McClain.
      • Starring Olivia Cristina Delgado, Tamarra Graham, Christian Lebano, Leilani Smith, and Jon Sprik.
      Sierra Madre Playhouse
      87 W Sierra Madre Blvd, Sierra Madre, CA 91024.

      • Performances: Thru Feb. 18
      • $17 – $30
      • Buy tickets here.

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