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Rachel Hemphill Dickson, Jason Carmichael, Gwen Harris, Michelle Harrell

Image: ANYCOLE

Celebrating its 40th anniversary season in Houston, the Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of Melda Beaty’s Front Porch Society reels the viewer into the lives of a group of women living in the small town of Marks, Mississippi. With remarkable performances that remind us how our politics always stem from intensely personal experiences, this play—set in 2008, as Barack Obama is about to become the first African-American President of the United States—offers a glimpse into the injustices faced by ordinary people.

All the action takes place on the realistically staged front porch belonging to protagonist Carrie, complete with plants and chairs and hand-knitted, multicolored Afghan blankets. The character is movingly played by Michele Harrell, who reveals more and more of her story as the work unfolds. She is irritable, angry and difficult to deal with, but we come to understand why as she tells of the heartbreaking and unjust loss of her son, who died in jail at the age of 17.

For Carrie, excitement about Obama takes a backseat to her skepticism about the world in general, but it inspires hope in the hearts of her circle of friends, even as the audience begins to feel their personal frustrations. The women’s conversations touch on everything from the rumor that Obama might be a Muslim (important to those in this Christian community) to voter intimidation at the polls. 

Winnie (played with comedic flair by Tamara Siler) is Carrie’s next-door neighbor, who doesn’t want to miss her “stories” and folds in the face of fears of voter intimidation. In contrast, Carrie’s 95-year-old friend Ms. Martha (deftly played by Gwen Harris) is waiting patiently to be taken to the polls, as she’s not going to miss her chance to vote for a black presidential candidate. Rachel Hemphill Dickson (who was so versatile and believable in The Ensemble’s production of Plenty of Time) plays an energetic and faithful Sister Stallworth, who sees Obama’s candidacy as not only a sign of hope and change, but also of God’s blessings and an affirmation of her faith, even if it is a faith that Carrie cannot completely share. As Carrie cynically states, “God don’t know where Marks, Mississippi is.”

Rounding out the outstanding cast is the flamboyant Alberta, who’s in possession of not only hot-pink-velour jogging suits, but of worldly experience gained outside of Marks: She has lived in Chicago and plans to attend the inauguration of Obama with her younger boyfriend. Alberta left the small town, yet sees its merits more as she ages. Still, she has distanced herself from her friends’ painful experience back in Marks, and her callous comments touch too close to the bone when Carrie learns that her son’s remains have been disturbed in a nearby cemetery.

The heaviness of Carrie’s grief is balanced well with the comic relief of Winnie and the witty repartee of the characters—a combination that works well with the political content. Each woman has a heartbreaking tale, whether it’s of losing children or being at the mercy of an unjust legal system. Everything from education to police violence to romantic relationships binds this Front Porch Society of strong women, who depend on each other for emotional support, even if at times they are at odds with each other.

Playwright Melda Beaty, who was present at the Ensemble’s opening performance, writes in the program that in conceiving this play, she wanted to imagine the lives of the generations of African-Americans who remember the time before the civil rights movement of the 1960s:

“It was the experience of their elders, and all black elders, who paved the way for liberties that my generation, and beyond, now enjoy. So, when the first black man became president…I was drawn not to how he galvanized the Millennials, but the significance his victory had on my elders, who grew up in a time that regarded them as inferior. I desired to tell their story and what a black president meant to them. I chose to set the play in my father’s birthplace of Quitman County in Marks, Mississippi. Quitman County was once ranked the poorest county in Mississippi.”

Full of pathos and surprises, Front Porch Society reminds us how powerfully personal tragedy can affect one’s political idealism, or lack thereof. When Obama is elected, the enthusiasm of 18-year-old Terrance is bittersweet: His happiness that a black man has been elected is palpable, but for Carrie, he represents what her son, Ricky, might have been, and might have experienced, had he been raised in a later and perhaps more just time and locale. 

Ensemble’s production offers outstanding performances that leave a powerful impression and offer a vivid portrait of a time not so far away.

Front Porch Society runs through June 4 at Ensemble Theatre. For information, visit ensemblehouston.com.

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