Taking the Periphery to centerstage

by Amy Kingsley

In Ed Simpson’s Periphery, history is quite literally front and center. The four Woolworth’s stools that supported the barrier-breaking posteriors of Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Franklin McCain for five-and-a-half long months in 1960 consume a sizable strip of downstage real estate, forcing the action to – you guessed it – the periphery.

The Greensboro Historical Museum showed generosity to Community Theatre of Greensboro, providing not only an essential set piece but also the stage for its production. Unfortunately, the museum’s cramped, crimped stage is not the easiest place to stage a large production like Periphery. The museum’s stage has no wings, which forces offstage actors onto chairs lined up along the aisles.

But that’s a small squabble with a very solid production. Simpson, a playwright and professor at High Point University, turned in a fine script for the Greensboro Bicentennial Commission. It takes the sit-ins as a catalyst and turns its gaze on the mess of humanity caught in its transformative maw.

The show begins with a slideshow, a series of iconic black-and-white images from the Civil Rights era. We see protesters engage with high-power hoses and attack dogs, police in riot gear and the awning from the old FW Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro.

As a scene-setting motif, it’s a little heavy-handed. The slide projector is also loud and clunky enough to inspire speculation about whether the company also dredged it out of museum storage.

Then a man sitting at a counter rises and begins a monologue. He is a member of the Greensboro Four, but it’s never made clear which one he is. As soon as he takes his seat, the lights come up on a pair of chattering waitresses aghast at his moxie.

There it is. Revolution. Coming to a placid life near you. Simpson starts at the sit-in movement’s epicenter: the humble lunch counter staffed by workers both black and white.

Enter a cook and a dishwasher, both black, who react to the four students with the same disapproval as the waitresses. In all cases, self-preservation and the preservation of a fragile, unsustainable way-of-life drive their reactions.

We meet more characters, students at Bennett and Guilford colleges, a floor mate of Franklin’s at A&T. All of them marinate in a stew of moral uncertainty.

The playwright’s decision to ignore the four instigators 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 it to life, is his ability to turn doubt into a dynamic process.

He does it by emphasizing personal interactions – conversations between fathers and sons, fathers and fathers and students on different sides of Greensboro’s racial divide, physically represented by the Southern Railway trestle on East Market Street.

Only two of the characters maintain their moral certainty throughout, our member of the Greensboro Four and a greasy-haired white boy too ignorant to acknowledge the debt his favorite musician, Elvis Presley, owes to black 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.

Which doesn’t mean that the play’s characters, even the black ones, are ready to accept its implications. Doug Brown merits singular praise for his portrayal of Phil, a black business owner who warns his son against taking part in the protests.

Phil survives by rejecting the white man’s hate, a protective instinct he takes to extremes. For Phil, the white world exists in the same way anti-matter does: theoretically and perilously.

It takes the arrest of his son, Eugene, and an encounter with a white father, Nate, to begin to crack his armor. The play ends soon after the two establish a fragile relationship with a chorus belting a gospel tune that promises more harmony than these confused humans can offer.

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