Play finds its heart in racial tensions of our time

Hope Cervantes and Sam Bardwell
Hope Cervantes and Sam Bardwell wrestle with race, class and privilege in "Things of Dry Hours" by Naomi Wallace.
Courtesy of Frank Theatre

A play opening tonight at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis revolves around three characters as they wrestle with an economic recession, racial tensions and political organizing.

From that description, you might think the play was compiled from recent headlines. But "Things of Dry Hours" was inspired by events in Birmingham, Ala., in 1932.

Frank Theatre Artistic Director Wendy Knox admits that the first couple of times she read "Things of Dry Hours," she wasn't sure it was worth staging. As a topic for a play, Communist organizing in the South at the height of the Great Depression seemed a little dry. But when she read it a third time, it suddenly became electrifying.

"I've never had a play hit me like this," Knox said. "Where I'm going, 'Yeah, it's a good play, it's a good play,' but haven't been compelled to get it on stage. And then we read it this summer and it's like, 'We've got to do this play.'"

What changed her mind, she said, are the times we live in. The birth of the Black Lives Matter movement and discussions of police brutality reframed the script as deeply relevant. Centered on an out-of-work black man who believes in the Communist Party almost as fiercely as he believes in God, "Things of Dry Hours" follows him and his daughter as they struggle to survive in a small cabin. Then a poverty-stricken white man shows up, looking for a place to hide from the law.

As the play continues, the sexual tension mounts between the daughter, Cali, and the fugitive, Corbin. But Cali turns the tables on the white man, putting shoe polish on his face and white porridge on her own, and talking to him in a manner she knows all too well.

Sam Bardwell, who plays Corbin, said the play offers a nuanced lesson in white privilege.

"Even now, unfortunately, for a lot of people it's impossible to recognize what it means to be white and the privilege that carries with it," he said. "But this play does such a brilliant job of taking bodies in space, and real stakes, and people that have life and death on the mind, and the threat is always there ... it's not some esoteric concept."

Actress Hope Cervantes said the play is almost too relevant.

"As an exercise, I was walking down the street and I was trying to imagine how life would be in the '30s — trying to imagine the dangers," she said. "And there was a police officer interacting with a black man and they were arguing over something, and he kept yelling, 'I know my rights.' And it just reminded me that not a lot has changed in that way."

Naomi Wallace's Things of Dry Hours.
Sam Bardwell, James Craven and Hope Cervantes in Naomi Wallace's "Things of Dry Hours." (Note: due to health issues, James Craven has been replaced by Warren C. Bowles.)
Courtesy of Frank Theatre

Retired Macalester professor Peter Rachleff agrees. He served as historical consultant to playwright Naomi Wallace when she wrote "Things of Dry Hours."

"The predicament that the three characters — one white and two black, two male and one female — the plight that they are in, in 1932 Birmingham, is not very different from the plight that a lot of people are still in," he said.

During the Great Depression, the Communist Party promised to work with African-Americans to stand against racism and fight for workers' rights, Rachleff said. While the party never gained a strong foothold in the United States, Rachleff said it's possible to trace the lineage of organizing and resistance from those days in Alabama to the Civil Rights movement in the '60s to the Black Lives movement today.

"And I think the mirror this play holds up to us is not to ask how much things have changed, or haven't they," Rachleff said. "It's to ask, 'Can we change? What would it take to change us?'"

As Rachleff likes to remind his students, history isn't over yet.

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