WAITING TO BE INVITED
A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union, 292-7676. $10-42 7:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. select matinees ends Sun., Sept. 16
WHAT'S TRIUMPHANT about Waiting to Be Invited, a stirring first play by S.M. Shephard-Massat, is its ingrained understanding of the doubt behind defiance. The story of four black women preparing to crash a department store's whites-only lunch counter, the piece focuses not so much on the courageous act itself as on the intricate and sometimes ugly business of combating one's own human fear. "You ain't no prizefighters," the women's bus driver friend, Palmeroy (Keith L. Hatten), worries, "Y'all is ladies."
In ACT's humane production, these ladies are at once average and bigger than life. It's 1961 in Atlanta, Ga., and Odessa (Ebony Jo-Ann), Louise (Demene E. Hall), and Delores (Cynthia Jones) have changed out of their Friday work clothes into cool, finely pressed dresses before embarking on their first formal political statement. Odessa is all intimidating bluster, while Louise attempts to operate out of quiet restraint and Delores covers up her terror with good cheer. Their very funny but tense banter is interrupted first by a surprisingly complex elderly white bus passenger (Jane Welch) and then, more crucially, when they meet up with their fourth tentative crusader, haughty pastor's wife Ruth (Michele Shay).
The show has a lot to say but doesn't ever wallow in speechifying, as director Israel Hicks works at the material from underneath. Hicks, following Shephard's acute lead, has done a remarkable job of dodging in and out of the interior disputes tucked within the larger issue; there are colorful flickers of the disappointments these women feel in themselves, each other, and their community. The subtleties in both the comic exasperation and barely swallowed concern make the show. Conversations come so effortlessly hard and fast, in fact, that you can miss things, and some of the eventual tears aren't yet completely organic, but there isn't a single dishonest scene.
Each actor in the sterling cast has a moment of truth—the hushed anger of Hall's climactic call to duty is a stunner—though Jo-Ann's turbulent humor and desperate valiance is what you may walk out remembering. Odessa is the piece's showiest role, and grandstanding could easily ruin it; Jo-Ann keeps her excesses firmly grounded. In a last-ditch effort to make Ruth comprehend the import of their civil disobedience, Odessa sobs, "Ruth, they sick dogs on my children." It isn't spoken as a crusader, but as a mother, and Jo-Ann is heaving with grief and horror when she says it; the moral righteousness is almost beside the point. And that, again, is the play's strength: These women are heroes because they are, first and foremost, ordinary people. They seem larger and that much more heroic because we've become aware of how bravely small they truly are.