Taking the Periphery to centerstage

by Amy Kingsley

In Ed Simpson’sPeriphery, history is quite literally front and center. The fourWoolworth’s stools that supported the barrier-breaking posteriors ofEzell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Franklin McCain forfive-and-a-half long months in 1960 consume a sizable strip ofdownstage real estate, forcing the action to – you guessed it – theperiphery. The Greensboro Historical Museum showed generosity toCommunity Theatre of Greensboro, providing not only an essential setpiece but also the stage for its production. Unfortunately, themuseum’s cramped, crimped stage is not the easiest place to stage alarge production like Periphery. The museum’s stage has no wings, whichforces offstage actors onto chairs lined up along the aisles. Butthat’s a small squabble with a very solid production. Simpson, aplaywright and professor at High Point University, turned in a finescript for the Greensboro Bicentennial Commission. It takes the sit-insas a catalyst and turns its gaze on the mess of humanity caught in itstransformative maw. The show begins with a slideshow, a seriesof iconic black-and-white images from the Civil Rights era. We seeprotesters engage with high-power hoses and attack dogs, police in riotgear and the awning from the old FW Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro. Asa scene-setting motif, it’s a little heavy-handed. The slide projectoris also loud and clunky enough to inspire speculation about whether thecompany also dredged it out of museum storage. Then a mansitting at a counter rises and begins a monologue. He is a member ofthe Greensboro Four, but it’s never made clear which one he is. As soonas he takes his seat, the lights come up on a pair of chatteringwaitresses aghast at his moxie. There it is. Revolution. Comingto a placid life near you. Simpson starts at the sit-in movement’sepicenter: the humble lunch counter staffed by workers both black andwhite. Enter a cook and a dishwasher, both black, who react tothe four students with the same disapproval as the waitresses. In allcases, self-preservation and the preservation of a fragile,unsustainable way-of-life drive their reactions. We meet morecharacters, students at Bennett and Guilford colleges, a floor mate ofFranklin’s at A&T. All of them marinate in a stew of moraluncertainty. The playwright’s decision to ignore the fourinstigators is a brave one. Active heroes are more interesting,generally speaking, than the passive types pulled along in their wake.The real achievement of Simpson’s script, and the actors who bring itto life, is his ability to turn doubt into a dynamic process. Hedoes it by emphasizing personal interactions – conversations betweenfathers and sons, fathers and fathers and students on different sidesof Greensboro’s racial divide, physically represented by the SouthernRailway trestle on East Market Street. Only two of thecharacters maintain their moral certainty throughout, our member of theGreensboro Four and a greasy-haired white boy too ignorant toacknowledge the debt his favorite musician, Elvis Presley, owes toblack gospel singers. "It’s complicated," is the play’s shorthand moral dodge, and it’s one you hear a lot. In fact, the issue is very clear-cut. Whichdoesn’t mean that the play’s characters, even the black ones, are readyto accept its implications. Doug Brown merits singular praise for hisportrayal of Phil, a black business owner who warns his son againsttaking part in the protests. Phil survives by rejecting thewhite man’s hate, a protective instinct he takes to extremes. For Phil,the white world exists in the same way anti-matter does: theoreticallyand perilously. It takes the arrest of his son, Eugene, and anencounter with a white father, Nate, to begin to crack his armor. Theplay ends soon after the two establish a fragile relationship with achorus belting a gospel tune that promises more harmony than theseconfused humans can offer.