After weeks of staged readings and two partially staged plays in Studio Theatre, Knox’s New Plays Festival will be presenting two partially staged plays this weekend: freshman Niki Acton’s “McComb 1964” and junior Jon Hewelt’s “Summer Song.”
“McComb,” directed by sophomore Emily Antoff, takes place in a Mississippi town when the civil rights movement was boiling over. Sisters Helen and Tess are from a “respectable” upper class white family.
Tess (junior Chloe Luetkemeyer) wants to help the civil rights movement and move to New York with her black boyfriend Dean (junior Melvin Taylor) but cannot see how little she understands what she is fighting for. Helen (senior Rose Dolezal), on the other hand, just wants to be “normal” but is quickly discovering her own conscience will not let her.
Instead of falling into the “white savior” trap that ensnares many civil rights pieces, Acton coldly examines the role privileged “pretty white girl[s]” can play in the movement when they cannot truly understand the plight of the people they want to help.
This dynamic is starkly established from the beginning of the play when Tess suggests that she and Dean go out together. When Dean protests, Tess asks him, “You think I’m scared?” and Dean simply replies, “It’s not your house they’d burn.”
The movement is almost a game to Tess, but she cannot see anything wrong with the way she pushes her friends and neighbors into harm’s way in an attempt to help. This arc is mirrored by Margo (sophomore Kathleen Gullion), an idealistic college student who goes to Mississippi to help register black voters.
Sadly, by the end of the play, most of the character’s stories still feel incomplete, like the script ran out two thirds of the way into the third act. Everything that made it on the stage is interesting, but the curtain call comes as a surprise.
“Summer Song,” a play sweetly sandwiched between a song, does not have the same problem. In fact, the plays do not have that much in common. “McComb” is a simple but sprawling microcosm of the southern civil rights movement, while “Summer Song” is a shorter, quieter piece about a woman and her mistress, trying to come to terms with her troubled marriage.
With gay rights still on everyone’s minds, it might be easy to assume that the two were placed to emphasize how the movements might mirror each other — while “McComb” does, “Summer Song” ignores the issue almost entirely. Instead, Hewelt chooses to focus on the play’s relationships and what intimacy really means.
The entire play is a conversation between the confident and sensitive Elanor (junior Mya Kahler) and the tender but closed off Maggie (freshman Sophie Click). Hewelt, Gullion (who directed the play) and the actresses collectively create the feeling of history and a strong connection between the characters, which carries the one-act even though it has much less traditional action than the play that preceded it.