Corrections or additions?

This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1

Newspaper on April 21, 1999. All rights reserved.

Review: `Lost Creek’

At a time when some contemporary playwrights are honing

their two-character, one-act dramas down to a mere 40 minutes, playwright

Charlotte Gibson looks back to Shakespeare and Chekhov as models for

her big, sprawling two-and-a-half-hour drama that has a lot to say

about all kinds of people. "Lost Creek Township," now having

its world premiere at Crossroads Theater, through Sunday, May 16,

is Gibson’s multi-character play — part drama, part melodrama

— that paints a sweeping picture of life after Emancipation in

an all-black township in Indiana.

With a self-avowed goal of healing some of the neglected fissures

in African-American history, Gibson’s historical fiction is as American

as apple pie. And this is no slender slice of history she serves up,

but a big wedge of post-Reconstruction life bulging with the fruits

of her research.

The play opens with a tornado that races across the Indiana farmland,

a precursor of the destabilizing events that hit the tiny township

of Lost Creek from every direction during the month of April, 1880.

With the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, change is in the

air. Ready to exercise their right to vote, blacks are full of hope,

moving northwards by the thousands. Lost Creek is a self-governing,

all-black township, an entity invisible to most and unmentioned by

so many, that has recently (with some help from Toni Morrison’s novel,

"Paradise") re-entered public consciousness. Over the course

of the play we gradually come to know, understand, and care about

12 very different residents of Lost Creek.

Ably directed by Reggie Montgomery, the setting for the action is

Lost Creek’s general store. Like August Wilson’s urban jitney stand,

the general store is a place where townspeople gather and lives unfold.

The tornado that rips off the church roof in the opening scene also

transforms the store into temporary church, shelter, and sick house

for injured neighbors. As the show’s primary setting, the store is

thoroughly pleasing in the verisimilitude of its long, wooden counter

and its stock of preserves, calicoes, and candy jars. Two big, rough-sawn

wooden screens slide across the front of the stage to define a space

for several key outdoor scenes.

In the store we meet the people of Lost Creek. Its proprietors are

Dorothy, played by Elizabeth Van Dyke, and Rupert, played by David

Wolos-Fonteno. Magaly Colimon plays Crystal, Dorothy’s young adult

sister whom she has raised since childhood. Whereas Dorothy and Rupert

are slavery survivors, Crystal has just returned from finishing her

education at a private school in the South and faces a crossroads

in her own life.

The group of Lost Creek townspeople that initially strikes us as fairly

homogeneous, proves as diverse and complicated as any gathering. Some

emerge from comfort, others from the most cruel adversity. Some personalities

have been forged out of necessity, others out of choice. All are now

hit with the reality of a wave of migration from the South by poor

blacks, described by Dorothy as "vagabond Negroes stirring up

trouble." Just who is stirring up the trouble is open to debate,

but everyone’s lives are changed as whites lash out against black

newcomers and farmer citizens alike, even pulling the respected pastor

from his horse and beating him.

At the axis of the action is Noah, a character we do not even meet

until the story is well underway, a "wanderer" of questionable

origins who galvanizes the citizens’ conflicts between righteousness

and self-righteousness. Joseph Edward’s compelling performance keeps

us guessing about the motivations and intent of the Noah (who takes

his single name from the word "no") right up to the play’s

penultimate scene. This is when Edwards performs a cooking lesson

seduction of the well-bred Crystal that will surely go down in the

annals of courtship as a gold medal turn.

Gibson offers other insights into the legacy of slavery. As we’ve

learned of the Holocaust survivors, many raised their children without

ever sharing with them the truth of their bitter experience. In a

similar vein, we see how these former slaves have donned their bonnets,

ankle-length dresses, and button shoes, and adopted a bourgeois lifestyle

and a mindset to match. Some, like Belinda, powerfully portrayed by

Wiyatta Fahnbulleh, are less eager or ready than others to throw off

the passions and beliefs of their ancestors. A lingering animism is

still very much a part of Belinda’s consciousness, as she looks for

answers to her existential questions in the land and in nature. How

to move on from the traumas of the past is a recurrent question. As

one character observes, a pananoia that keeps a person "forever

waking in fear at the sound of horses in the night . . . is a narrow

stingy way to live a life." Hope is essential.

Gibson succeeds in illustrating how her characters rekindle the spirit

of optimism that enables oppressed people to persevere, then and now.

Emblematic of this spirit is Belinda’s young husband Bradley, well-played

by Avery Glymph, a young man intoxicated by the promise of the future

who suffers a succession of crushing adversities, yet who finds the

strength to look to the future with enthusiasm.

Ample comic relief is provided in Lost Creek by Sheyvonne Wright in

her star turn as the self-important busybody, Sister Woman, who assures

the gullible Crystal that "God has a sense of humor." Gena

Bardwell plays the town’s formerly unshakeable midwife, known as the

Reverend Missus; and Helmar Augustus Cooper plays her husband, the

beleaguered Reverend.

The key to the success of this sprawling story is its gentle pacing:

in Lost Creek, a character drinks a glass of water in the time it

takes to drink a glass of water. This may seem slow to some, yet it

yields its own rewards. The closing scene between Dorothy and an orphaned

child, an artificial, perhaps Greek-inspired resolution to the convoluted

plot, is a difficult one. But here, too, the exchanges between these

two vulnerable, uprooted characters takes as long as it takes. And

Gibson’s audience is fully prepared to stay with them.

— Nicole Plett

Lost Creek Township, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-249-5560. To Sunday, May 16. $24 to $35.


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