Theater Review: Emotionally Charged ‘Bourbon at the Border’ Interrogates the Retelling and Rewriting of History
This week marks the 60th anniversary of the Woolworth counter sit-in by the Greensboro Four. The event marked a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, sparking the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh and rallying young people across the South to protest segregation peacefully.
From organizing sit-ins, Freedom Rides, marches, and voter registration drives, champions of civil rights were often beaten, arrested, and left for dead. So, what was the psychological toll of the Civil Rights Movement on the Emmett Till Generation? That is the central question of Pearl Cleage’s play Bourbon at the Border, now playing at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre (NRACT).
The year is 1995. An anxious May awaits the homecoming of her husband Charlie who has been in and out of the hospital “due to the craziness caused by the events in Mississippi” during Freedom Summer, a massive voter registration drive in 1964. Surrounded by good friends and a bottle of Jack, May and Charlie toast to a brighter future, perhaps in Canada. But is love enough to mend a broken spirit?
The NRACT production of Bourbon at the Border boasts a talented cast of actors, each fully invested in the emotional intensity of the story. Joseph Callender’s commanding onstage presence as Charlie holds the audience spellbound, while Tina Morris-Anderson’s May is duly heart-wrenching. Dr. Joy L. Bryant’s even-keeled performance as May’s best friend Rosa balances out some of the script’s weightiness, while Juan Isler’s intuitive portrayal of Tyrone, Rosa’s boyfriend, packs a punch to the gut and delivers one of the most profound moments of the entire production.
This marks Natasha A. Jackson’s directorial debut. It is clear at the top of Act Two that Jackson is a keen collaborator, giving the actors the freedom to imbue the production with backstories drawn from personal experiences. These are the unscripted elements that add a rich layer to Cleage’s otherwise predictable plot, juxtaposing the immeasurable cost of the war in Vietnam with the damaging cost of the race war fought at home.
Some clumsy and unnecessary scene changes disrupt the rhythm of the piece but are made more palatable by a well-curated soundtrack that triggers a visceral reaction from the audience.
Bourbon at the Border is an important story to tell, particularly at this moment in time. The play’s telling, thought-provoking themes can and should ignite meaningful conversations about mental illness, trauma, and racial injustice. More importantly, it is an interrogation of how we selectively retell and even try to rewrite history and immortalize our heroes.