The Falcon Explores a Shattering Black American Experience in “Bourbon at the Border”
Review by Doug Iden
What’s wrong with Charlie? Haunted by a brutal experience while trying to register black voters in Mississippi in the 1960’s, Charlie (Dathan Hooper) and his wife May (Torie Wiggins) try to create a new life for themselves in the regional premier of Pearl Cleage’s Bourbon At The Border now playing at Falcon Theater.
May eagerly anticipates her reunion with Charlie after a months-long stay in “rehab” for an alleged leg injury. She fusses around her well-appointed apartment and constantly repositions some magazines in an opening comic scene. When the doorbell rings, she assumes it’s Charlie but instead it is her flighty neighbor Rosa (Kyndra Dyanne Jeffries). Rosa is ready to party with her new boyfriend Tyrone (James Christian, Jr.) but is concerned about May and the current mental condition of Charlie. May is also nervous and anxious about his condition. During the women’s discussion, we already get a sense of foreboding with unspoken secrets, half-truths and divided loyalties.
When Charlie finally arrives, he presents himself as a “new man” complete with nice clothes and a confident demeanor and ready to start again. Still, there is an undercurrent of wariness, suspicion and anger which permeates. Hooper’s brilliant portrayal of Charlie is at the core of the story. You can sense his internal struggle as he tries to create a controlled persona. Hooper’s characterization, coupled with a well-plotted story by Cleage, keeps the audience guessing throughout the show. This is not a thriller or a mystery (per se) but there are many elements of both in the play.
Charlie and May’s reunion is revelatory. Charlie’s rehab was successful and his medications are allowing him to function well. He wants to start a new life and get a job. May is relieved and joyous that he is “back to his old self”.
Later, Tyrone and Rosa visit in May’s apartment. Tyrone and Charlie bond quickly and Tyrone offers to help Charlie get a job as a local deliveryman. The four-way relationship is more relaxed but Rosa still senses some disparities. Many of their joint African American experiences of living in America start to come out during this scene.
There is a lot of humor in the show, especially in the first act. Jeffries (as Rosa) is an accomplished comedian and provides most of the comic relief. Rosa is a notoriously bad joke-teller but she keeps trying unsuccessfully to tell “knock-knock” jokes. She tries various jobs including a hilarious scene when she recounts an interview as a phone-sex operator. She also tries various marketing surveys, using May as her guineapig for food and perfumes. Jeffries blends well the vivacious, self-absorbed, sexy party girl with an unexpected sense of reality. Christian (as Tyrone) also adds some comic relief with his bonhomie but is he for real or a con man?
At the end of the first act, I was wondering where the play was going. There were a number of hints of a tragic ending and deep-seated secrets. But was this just a story about new-beginnings and an awkward but real set of friendships or was there more? The second act thunders like a freight train as shattering incidents from in the past overwhelm the characters in the second act and lead to a devastating ending.
This is a deceptively powerful play which deals with excruciating experiences of African Americans but is told with such clarity and humanity that it is universal. The actors and director Piper Davis have crafted an excellent show which stays with you long after leaving the theater. Wiggins long-suffering character is the center-point and conscience of the show which the veteran actress plays with equal parts of humor, love, compassion, anxiety and dreams of a better future. She is willing to forgive and move on but is everyone else that willing?
The entire play takes place in May’s apartment in a fairly elaborate set designed by Ted Weil which includes sofas, dining tables, kitchen appliances, pictures on the wall and a door through which the characters enter and exit. Costumes by Tara Williams (who also designed the props) include several sexy dresses, party outfits for Tyrone and other casual wear.
Overall, this is an excellent play, well-acted and directed. It is powerful, however, and can be a bit overwhelming at the end. It depicts a raw view of African American life with some adult language. However, do yourself a favor and visit the Falcon for the ongoing run of Bourbon at the Border. Performances are August 5, 6, 12, and 13 at 8:00 PM EST and August 7 and 14 at 2:00 PM EST. Ticket prices are $25 for adults and $15 for students with valid ID. Purchase tickets HERE.