Much Ado About a Book

By Geary Danihy

Who "owns" the black voice in literature?

Is a writer free to create, or is he or she limited by
certain social strictures and politically
correct agreements?

What is more important, the words on the page or the identity of the person who created those words?

These and many other questions Thomas Gibbons wrestles with in his Bee-Luther-Hatchee, an
uneven "issue" play that recently opened at Stamford Theatre Works.
The play's title refers to a term that signifies the train station beyond the last station, which is Hell.
Apparently, in black folklore, the term was used to quell unruly children -- Act up and you'll end up at
Bee-Luther-Hatchee -- although as used in the play it takes on more of a sense of an evil bogey-man
than a destination beyond Hades, as in, "Bee-Luther-Hatchee is gonna get you!"
The play's title is also the title of a book that Shelita Burns (Melanie Nicholls-King), an up and coming
New York City editor, has nurtured for a small-press series of "lost black voices" books. The book gets
rave reviews. It wins a major prize. Burns is offered a prestigious publishing job. The only problem is,
her contact with the book's ostensible author, Libby Price (M. Drue Williams) has been solely through
letters sent to a nursing home. The author wishes no publicity, no photographs. For professional and
personal reasons, Burns is determined to meet her. Burns' friend, Anna (Sydney Stone), questions her
motives, suggesting a mother fixation.
Bee-Luther-Hatchee is a train that takes its time pulling out of the station, for most of the first act is a
set-up for the revelation that comes at the act's curtain. The "meat," if you will, is in the second act,
and it is a weighty smorgasbord, for Gibbons' list of "issues" is substantial.
The set, designed by David Esler, is really a set within a set, for lurking over and above the
down-stage editor's apartment, which also serves as her hotel room for most of the second act, is a
kitchen that belongs to Robert Leonard (Simon Feil), a kitchen to which he brings Libby in the hopes of
stilling ghosts that moan of miscegenation. Its dominance is artistically significant, for what occurs in
this kitchen essentially drives the play. Less effective are the two freestanding, square platforms set
stage left and right that various characters (mostly Libby in her dotage) ascend to deliver lines. The
up-and-down movements are a bit distracting, especially in Libby's case, and the same effect could
have been accomplished simply by hitting the actors with dedicated spots.
The heart of the play beats the strongest in the second act, in which Burns must weigh her
professional hopes against her personal commitments when confronted by a lie that is also a truth, for
into her hotel room comes Sean Leonard (Patrick McNulty), an author and son of Robert Leonard.
What follows often has the feel of a college debate, with the "For" and "Against" teams given equal
time to present their points of view, the focus being the book that has achieved so much acclaim, a
book supposedly written by an itinerant black woman.
Regardless of who the book's author is, the work has caused such a stir that its text must be riveting,
and it is here that the play simply does not deliver. We hear Libby's words, spoken primarily on the
platforms, and though they are engaging they do not instill any fervor, any sense of wisdom learned
while living under a system of de facto segregation. She moves from place to place, riding trains,
cadging rides, walking roads, a frightened mouse whom the audience is asked to view as a person who
has experienced some form of transcendence. Hence, the disconnect between her appearance, her
words, her demeanor and the acclaim the book has received (which is a point Sean Leonard obliquely
There's a lot of crying, screaming, soul-searching and accusatory finger-pointing in the second act,
and Nicholls-King and McNulty offer the audience an intense give and take on ideas and issues that
are worth pursuing, but it is the book that is at the heart of the argument, and it is the book that never
comes alive except, fleetingly, in the play's final moments with a wonderfully visual and verbal set-piece
that has Burns, nested on a sofa, re-reading the book as all the "voices" that have contributed to it
speak. Unfortunately, the voices, both live and taped, speak over each other, so what is being said (it
appears to be about Libby's confrontation with the devil at the penultimate railroad station) is lost, given
up to the symbolism of the moment. From the shards of dialogue that can be discerned, this is the
moment when the book's weight, its beauty, its importance is being revealed. Alas, it devolves into
Bee-Luther-Hatchee is a play about words, both written and spoken, and the authenticity of those
words. The arguments about these words are trenchant; the passions that they evoke are evident. The
only problem is, the words themselves, the words that have so moved an editor, the words that have
swayed those charged with awarding a literary prize, never assail and beguile.
The audience eventually learns "who" Libby is, but it seems somewhat beside the point. There's a
woman…yes, she is black, but… Just about everyone in the play gets to emotionally erupt…except for
It's too bad the audience wasn't handed copies of Libby's book before the play. A quick read might
have revealed what all the fuss was about.

Bee-Luther-Hatchee runs through Sunday, Feb. 17. For tickets or more information call 359-4414 or go

L-R, Sydney Stone and Melanie Nicholls-King in
"Bee-Luther-Hatchee" at Stamford Theatre Works
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