Interesting families have interesting stories, or at least they have people who hear the stories and make them so. Playwright Margaret Baldwin, Atlanta native and Kennesaw State University lecturer, has one that her grandmother told her, about being in Selma, Ala., in 1965 for the historic March on Montgomery and driving downtown with her black housekeeper to watch it together. After her grandmother died, Baldwin thought about turning the story into a play and asked the housekeeper for her memories of that day.
“It never happened,” the woman told her. Fortunately, Baldwin still wrote a play, but obviously a different one than she had envisioned. And quite likely a better one. “Night Blooms,” which had its world premiere September 24 at the Horizon Theatre in Little 5 Points, is very well-written, subtle, moving, complicated and funny. I can’t emphasize the easy, gentle, laugh-out-loud humor enough; this is not didactic “eat your spinach” theater. Although it’s certainly morally nutritious.
The day will come soon when the events of the Selma March are no longer common knowledge. For those unfamiliar with it, I’d advise reading a good book about it — start with David J. Garrow’s “Bearing the Cross” — or at least the Wikipedia page for some context to appreciate Baldwin’s and Horizon’s efforts. “Night Blooms” takes place on March 21, two weeks after “Bloody Sunday,” as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. prepares to complete the march that had been violently halted. All this happens offstage, with occasional news filtering in to the Stafford household: white, middle class, not as viciously racist as some at the time, but certainly more comfortable not examining, let alone challenging, the status quo.
Grandma Lucille (the exquisite Jill Jane Clements) is obsessed with a plant about to bloom on her porch, which is easier to think about than the slow decline toward death of her husband Buzz (Tom Thon) from cancer. Her too-proper daughter Ruth (LaLa Cochran) and budding progressive granddaughter Lucy (Bethany Ann Lind) are visiting, soon to be joined by prodigal son Clayton (Harrison Long).
If these characters had been sketched by Tennessee Williams, they would flay one another for two hours. There is more than a little verbal cruelty unleashed in “Night Blooms,” but Baldwin wants to illuminate some racial truths, so she adds Geneva (Marguerite Hannah), the Staffords’ black housekeeper, and her daughter Raynelle (Brittney London), who have been coerced into working on Geneva’s day off, a day when her mind is not on pleasing her white bosses.
Baldwin gets so many of the tiny racial codes and gestures of the era just right; some of them are so subtle that younger audiences may be puzzled. (I’d love for bright high school history classes to see “Night Blooms” with smart teachers to talk with afterward.) That little difference of memory — did the white employer and her black employee watch the march together or not — becomes an entire world of how differently people live and perceive.
Most importantly, Baldwin knows and loves these characters like her own family, because they are. Like Pat Conroy’s best novels, “The Prince of Tides” et al., which explore blacks and whites at a certain time in the South, or even Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (earlier era, similar richness), “Night Blooms” gives us real people, who with all their flaws — and there are some doozies on display — are so loved by the playwright and the company of actors that we can’t help but love them too.
Those actors, all named above, are outstanding, and they all elevate one another’s work exactly the way the best theatrical companies do. Director Karen Robinson (and Horizon mainstay Lisa Adler) deserve much applause for bringing Baldwin’s “Night Blooms” to life. On opening night, the first time anyone had seen a full production (it’s been workshopped a lot), the audience gave the obligatory standing O, then rushed for the exits when the lights came up. “Night Blooms” earns several curtain calls, and the new play deserves your attention if you value the best original Atlanta theater.