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Playwright Explores the “Periphery” of Historical Change

Ed Simpson’s play, Periphery, opened in L.A. in honor of Black History Month – but also on the same day that massive crowds of protesters flooded the streets in cities across the nation against the newly inaugurated President Trump.

Deborah Klugman

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Ben Michaels and William Warren. (Photo by Sammy Davis)

Periphery, by Ed Simpson, opened at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in honor of Black History Month – but also on the same day that massive crowds of protestors flooded the streets in cities across the nation and the world. The demonstrators made their voices heard in response to the newly inaugurated presidency of Donald Trump and the clear intent of his administration to quash women’s rights, assail immigrants and minorities, abolish the Affordable Care Act and gut environmental protections.

The coincidence is notable because the theme of Periphery is the power of the individual to effect change. The script is a docudrama based on the 1960 sit-ins that took place at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Four African-American freshmen from a local college sat down at the “whites only” counter and ordered cups of coffee. They were refused service and asked to leave, but remained seated until the store closed, and were joined the next day by other young people who followed suit. The sit-in action spread to other Southern cities — where some activists risked their lives at the hands of white mobs. Eventually, Woolworth’s caved and five months after the sit-ins began, the café at the Greensboro store began serving blacks.

Simpson’s narrative is a symbolic and streamlined version of historical events, and begins with the consolidation of the four original activists into one angry and outspoken Young Man (Etienne Maurice). On impulse, he decides to challenge the status quo, and takes his place at the counter, to the dismay of the waitresses and kitchen staff, including Margaret (Jennifer Jones) the cook and Billy (William Warren) the dishwasher, both long-term employees who are middle-aged and black.

News spreads, by word of mouth and on TV. Additional characters emerge: other young people who debate the Young Man’s stance and whether they should follow his example, and their parents, both black and white, who are concerned for their kids and prefer the safety of the status quo, despite its ugly injustice. There’s also a mean-mouthed racist dude named Jerry (Ben Michaels, in one of the evening’s on-point, attention-grabbing performances), who agonizes over whether Elvis is black or white (he isn’t sure) and stands in for every uneducated white male whose feelings of racial superiority buttress an invidious ego.

Directed by Lorey Hayes, and structured episodically to reflect the various points of view surrounding the main event (hence the title), Periphery is best experienced as the educational vehicle it was written to be. Production is barebones and the lighting (an equipment issue, I think) doesn’t always serve the story. The good news is that the playwright has drawn the characters with skill, and many of the performances are solid. Of particular note is Sammie Wayne as Nate, the remonstrative father of an 18-year-old youth (Melvin S. Ward) who’s considering joining the protest. Nate’s a small businessman with a lot of personal dignity, who’s avoided conflict by remaining on his side of the tracks. His dialogue about what it is to be a man is some of the playwright’s best, and Wayne’s beautifully understated rendering serves up the evening’s highlight.

Other worthy performances include Ward as Nate’s conflicted son, Eugene; Warren as an exasperated Billy, seething with anger at the Young Man’s dangerous dare; and Jeff LeBeau as Nate’s white counterpart, a worried dad who understands that things have to change — but isn’t ready for it yet.

Hudson Backstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (323) 856-4249 or plays411.com; through February 26.

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