Actor’s Express is presenting the world premiere of Janine Nabers’ “Serial Black Face,” directed by Freddie Ashley, running through April 24. The play is set in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981, when the Atlanta Child Murders were taking place. Over 20 black children and young people were abducted and killed. If you lived here then, you remember the horror of that time.
I happened to be teaching at the now defunct M.D. Collins High School in south Fulton County in 1980-81; this was close to ground zero of where Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered Children, as they came to be called, disappeared. I remember the fear and tension were so great that PTA meetings at night were canceled because no one wanted to go out.
I assumed that “Serial Black Face,” so called because the investigators decided that the killer was probably black, was going to be a docudrama; and I prepared myself to relive that very scary time. I needn’t have worried. The play is more of a domestic drama with the murders as a sometimes distant background. Not that you can ever forget what is happening.
A single mother named Vivian (Tinashe Kajese-Bolden) has a missing little boy named Sammy (whom we never see) and a 15-year-old daughter named Latoya (Imani Guy Duckette). Vivian is struggling with multiple jobs to make ends meet, yet somehow she’s saved enough money to send Latoya to an expensive private school; this is a bit of a disconnect for me. Anyway, Latoya, full of teenage angst, ingratitude and sexual awakening, is proving a handful to her mother.
Vivian, understandably full of fear and anxiety herself, meets and soon marries the Man with the Face, as he’s called in the program, played by Gilbert Glenn Brown. Could he be the killer? Latoya is not thrilled, and complications ensue. The play becomes quite a mother-daughter contretemps, and it almost becomes possible to forget that Vivian has a missing son. But then, Vivian will suddenly take a flyer with Sammy’s picture and pitifully ask a bystander if he’s seen her little boy.
All this becomes rather jarring; we even have some expert comic relief from Vivian’s friends at work, Dréa Lewis and Kelli Winans. And you almost feel guilty for laughing because you remember the horror that is happening in the city.
Ms. Nabers asks a lot of her audience—perhaps too much. We know there are serious social conflicts and class and racial issues here that could be dealt with. But the playwright puts them largely on a subliminal level, and it doesn’t seem quite appropriate; again, some disconnect.
Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s somber scenic design and Rebecca M.K.Makus’ lighting provides a sinister ambience.
The acting is first-rate, especially Ms. Kajese-Bolden in a complex, muted, anguished protrayal. Mr. Brown is excellent as The Man, whose relationship with mother and daughter proves problematic. Ms. Duckett (the real-life daughter of Atlanta-based actress Jasmine Guy), to her credit, brings some humanity to a role that could be very one-note. Ms. Lewis, Ms. Winans, and Brian Hatch (playing multiple roles) provide very solid support.
A serious play which focuses on the Atlanta Child Murders has yet to be written; yet Ms. Nabers’ work points the way and is too important to miss.
For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.