Works of art often inspire news works as Mark Clayton Southers by August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. His Miss Julie, Clarissa and John takes us to a former slave plantation in Virginia in 1888 where the dark cultural and economic legacy of the Civil War and slavery are present in both the subtext and Southers’ script.
Practically seated on stage for the world premiere at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, the audience is wrapped around Tony Ferrieri’s brilliantly authentic and intimate set with its stone hearth and rough-hewn wall timber. Kudos also to assistant set designer Hank Bullington and scenic artist Alicia Diaz. At times, the audience is plunged into complete darkness at times by the thoughtful lighting design by Madeleine Steineck. Authenticity is also supported by Cheryl El-Walker’s costumes. Being “in the room” with the three characters’ passionate and complex interactions intensifies how their words echo relevantly now. Freeland’s deft direction for this small stage includes everyday tasks reinforces the trio’s tense and often sensual dance.
The kitchen cabin’s quaint domesticity belies this story’s truths for the Hodge plantation is a place of secrets and discomfort. Former Hodge slaves Clarissa and John, a long-time couple, live in the quarters, but have never “jumped the broom.” They had gained a debatable freedom, growing older on this plantation. Along with the unpredictability of post-war emancipation, other baggage holds them back. She’s a mulatto and more than curious about her paternity. They are loyal to their former master and Julie, a delusional and spoiled daughter.
The titular characters of Miss Julie, Clarissa and John provide some wonderful challenges and moments for each actor. Their backstories, inner monologues, and spoken words richly well up, making for a powerful dramatic experience. And all three discuss the roles of owner and slave, landowner and servant, and, especially, black, white and in between. John wonders if Captain Hodge might bequeath his servant a piece of land and wonders if there’s more to his life.
Tami Dixon’s Julie is everyone’s worst nightmare and don’t Clarissa and John know it, comparing their narcissistic mistress to “the Devil”. Because she spends a lot of time in the kitchen and quarters apparently shared by Clarissa and John, Julie divulges many of her own secrets. Dixon is bratty and brazen, alternating her commands with Southern sweetness from her flirtatious opening invitation for John hold her tightly while dancing dancing on this midsummer holiday. She berates Clarissa about a pregnant dog, seeming obsessed about the arrival of puppies. (Or it is it babies she really fears?). Dixon is an actor to treasure in this community as she manages wild emotional shifts and a captivating fantasy monologue with John’s tail coat. Dixon’s Julie shifts quickly and with strong intent from meanness to allure with a thoughtfully placed raise of an eyebrow and genuine vocal variety required of this volatile lady. Southers has Julie use the “n-word” with a sense of entitlement associated with slave owners who used to buy and sell other human beings. It’s clear who who still claims ownership here as Julie confirms the importance of “keeping people in order”.
Clarissa, a character drawn more fully than the Christina of Strindberg’s play, is played with depth and knowledge by Chrystal Bates, who opens the action sweetly singing “It is well with my soul” Her Clarissa’s voice is rightfully appreciated by Julie who later orders her to sing later in the place. Such demands might just drain the joy from her songs, but Clarissa obeys. Clarissa is pensive but passionate under the surface and always a bit jealous of Julie for what appears to be true freedom and her open sensuality.
She has developed the character with Southers through all of the play’s developmental workshops. At first appearing quiet and submissive, Clarissa is actually seething with resentment and anger as she’s long carried grief for her mother and is haunted by her parentage. Her origins are likely similar those of countless slaves and children for much of the 19th century.
Bates aptly balances Clarissa’s pain and her need to carry on. She accomplishes her admiral performance by not showing us too much, sharing Clarissa’s heartbreaking discoveries in a powerful and climactic monologue. It’s hard not to weep with Bates for her character and her mother represent so many women of the era–and, well, all of history.
In the complex role of John, Kevin Brown provides lovely nuance with about more than just survival smarts. John understands the fine line he walks. He jumps when Captain Hodge rings the bell for meals from his sick bed in the big house and he tolerates Miss Julie’s disrespect and manipulation. While conveying John’s hesitation to play Julie’s game, Brown’s drawing of John’s attraction and his reaction to Julie are artful. He wants to resist but is taunted by Julie’s argument that he “be a man”. Brown captures the conflict of John’s multiple life roles and we care about him.
But there is welcome laughter in this play, through often laced with irony. John’s retelling of a fairy tale he read in the big house to Clarissa charming. So we know John can read–indicating he could do better than many freedman. The role reversal of Julie and John as as master and slave solicits giggles, but it’s still a dangerous dance. The pre-show distribution of a Victorian-style newspaper/program by Souther’s sons as newsboys was a fun touch. And Mark Whitehead’s sound design includes wonderful traditional and church music Southerners would know.
Southers succeeds in his historical transplantation of the story’s roots, keeping Strindberg’s summer solstice timing. Overall, the candor in Southers’ script likewise doesn’t allow the audience to escape. This shared history is haunting. So, Julie’s wild rationalizations don’t save her from tragedy. But still, as John tells her, “Your worst day outshines the best of mine.”
Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is on stage March 12-27 at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, 937 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, 15222. Special thanks to PPTCo for complimentary press tickets. Opening night on March 12 and some other early performances were sold out, so prompt ticket orders are recommended. Additional talkbacks are scheduled for following the 2 pm matinee on Sat., March 19 and the 3 pm matinee on Sun., March 27. Tickets: $20-25, with a $5 discount for students ordering online. Group details and questions at 412-687-4686. Visit the PPTCo website for more information on details and tickets. Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is a script supported by the Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation’s Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh program.
Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.