With “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John,” Mark Clayton Southers packs sex and scandal into the residual intergenerational traumas of slavery and oppression that endured after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The play, an adaptation of the 1888 drama by August Strindberg, opened the Black Rep’s 40th Season last weekend and continues through September 25 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre.
In the play, American slavery has been over for nearly a quarter-century, but audiences can hardly tell by the way John and Clarissa carry on to get breakfast ready for “Captain” and Miss Julie. The fervent ring of a bell tied to a string that leads to the big house means that they best hurry.
The play captures a day in the life of Clarissa and John, two former slaves who stayed on to work the Virginia plantation where they were once regarded as property, and Miss Julie – who will inherit the land when her deathly ill father finally succumbs.
Clarissa and John grew up on the plantation, and eventually came together in a long-term relationship. Miss Julie grew up alongside them, but it goes without saying that their collective experiences couldn’t have been further apart.
When the audiences meets the trio, they are all well into adulthood and seemingly heading towards middle age, based on their experiences. Miss Julie has decided that on this summer solstice she will act on her nearly lifelong infatuation with John – with or without his consent.
She is anything but shy about her intentions – even going so far as to overtly flirt with him in front of his longtime love Clarissa.
Southers covers much ground, as far as the tragic circumstances that grew out of slavery and the effects of white privilege. Let Miss Julie tell it: Black folks should count white people as their biggest blessing for “taking care of them” after all the trouble they caused for the country. Yet they are treated lower than livestock – even after slavery – and their bodies still don’t belong to themselves in any capacity.
The playwright also blends sex and suspense in a manner that manages to engage the desensitized palate of today’s audience with situations that are suited for the era reflected in the play.
With his mission to expose the ills and ironies of the day, Southers follows the model of his mentor August Wilson in a play that is thick with – at time, excessive - dialogue. The language patterns of the play sometimes resemble back and forth monologues, rather than conversations. This would have been the death of a lesser-talented trio of performers, but the masterful cast and direction by Andrea Frye make the endless exchange of complexity in the conversations feel like a thrilling tennis match.
Young actress Alicia Reve Like has once again proved herself to be a star in the making as Clarissa, the mulatto woman whom Miss Julie secretly envies for her strength and intelligence. Veteran St. Louis actors Eric J. Conners and Laurie McConnell illustrate that the caliber of local talent on the Black Rep stage could hold its own on a national level.
Between the natural chemistry and authentic portrayal of the three actors, as well as the scenic by Jim Burwinkel and lighting design by Kathy Perkins, those who attend will confront the impossible experiences people of color faced in the 19th century – many of which extend to present day.
The Black Rep’s presentation of “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” continues through Sunday, September 25 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth. For more information, visit www.theblackrep.org or call (314) 534-3810.