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A CurtainUp Review

Everybody's Ruby
The Story of a Murder in FloridaThe Story

At stage left we have a brief glimpse of a woman in a house dress, humming as she cleans a toilet. At stage right and center a man and woman struggle, she pulls a gun and shoots him. The crime flashes by us as if in a dark dream, its mystery deepened by our not knowing who's who or where and why this is happening.

That prologue literally gets Everybody's Ruby going with a big bang. It also sets the scene for Thulani Davis' compelling, beautifully staged and acted fact based synthesis of the stories of two women who seem to have little in common except the color of their skins.

The first woman is the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (Phylicia Rashad). She is reduced to part-time maid's work and occasional free lance journalism assignments because her once lustrous career is in shambles. The shooter is Ruby McCollum (Viola Davis), a thirty-seven-year old housewife whose trial Hurston will cover for the Pittsburgh Courier.

For McCollum, whose complicated relationship with the dead man drives the murder mystery at the heart of this eminently watchable new drama, the trial culminates a life of trying to escape the confines of the stultifying social order. For Hurston it's a chance to trade her mop for the portable typewriter on which she pounded out seven novels -- to "get Zora back on her game." And for Thulani Davis the murder affords an opportunity to combine the excitement and appeal of a staged trial with an exploration of race, sex, and corruption in a small Florida town in 1952.

It's not the best of times or locations for a black woman standing trial for the murder of a white man to expect a fair hearing. Live Oak is also not a place where a black woman reporter is likely to break down the judge's determination to keep Ruby incommunicado or get too much cooperation from the town's citizens who all have their reasons for keeping their own council. As one black citizen tells Hurston during an early scene "There's only two kinds of folks in this town--the ones who call the shots, and the ones tryin' to stay alive." And when Hurston asks "So I'm supposed to do like everyone else and stand around here lookin' like I was struck dumb?" the reply is an emphatic "Yep, Struck very dumb. And don't stand still too long either. You might find you in the way of them what's trying to stay alive."

As it turns out stonewalling judges, clerks and citizenry are the playwright's stepping stones for having Hurston the reporter use her novelist's inner eye to unravel the events leading up to the murder. This in turn makes it clear that Ms. Davis is concerned with unraveling yet another mystery -- the mystery of why the book that came out of that trial (The Crime of Ruby McCollum) was by-lined by William Bradford Huie instead of Zora Neale Hurston. In short paralleling the silencing of Ruby on the witness stand with the silencing of this writer's voice in the prime of her life.

While Ms. Davis succeeds quite admirably in showing the connecting threads between the two seemingly world apart women (both sought escape from the confines of the racially and socially confining Florida towns of their birth), the passion play -- Ruby's story -- makes the strongest impression. The Zora Neale Hurston element is well integrated into the story line with bits and pieces of Hurston's history adeptly worked into the script. Still, as was the case with the autobiographical Zora Neale Hurston presented at the American Place Theatre last fall (see link), theater goers who are unfamiliar with Hurston's history and writings may miss many nuances.

For example, all but one of a foursome I overheard during the intermission failed to connect the woman cleaning the toilet in the prologue with the Zora Neale Hurston who next appears on stage as a reporter. That's not to say that Phylicia Rashad does not do a fine job as the down-on-her-luck but still scrappy Zora, especially during the second act. When in an act of heart wrenching humanity she bows out of Ruby's story and tries to sell her beloved "Mamie" (the typewriter named after Mamie Smith) to the local stationer, you bleed with her and for all the despair and nobility contained in that transaction.

As the best of Everybody's Ruby belongs to the story of the murder, so the top acting honors belong to Viola Davis. She draws a towering portrait of Ruby McCollum, who should have left her home town as Zora Neale Hurston did but instead stayed to marry Sam the town's richest black man (Bill Nunn) and to fall under the spell of Dr. Leroy Adams (Beau Gravitte) "small time politicker with big time dreams. Local saint and really bad boy." From the time we first see her, silent and her face as empty as if someone had suctioned out all emotion, to the final and powerful jail cell meeting with Zora, she is the dominating force. Only a terrific actress could make us see how a man who rapes you could become a man you no longer fear but in fact want. As Zora escaped through education, Ruby found that "Bending the rules was all I had. A tongue licking after a taste of life I'd never had. I felt it like a power....I thought I was supposed to love one man, three children and then a cavity opens up in my chest. Love like that takes many prisoners. Love like that don't care about good -- And it don't care about danger."

As played by Gravitte, Dr. Adams is all "really bad boy" with not a trace of saintliness. Tuck Milligan is a bit too boyish to be a believably middle-aged William Bradford Huie. Raynor Scheine manages to bring out the good and bad in Deputy Sheriff Barkey. Commendation is also in order for Crystal Fox who does does double duty as the doctor's receptionist and a waitress. It's during a scene when several black townspeople talk about the trial, that Fox in her role as the waitress clarifies the title of the play:

"You call her Ruby like you know her good. Hmph. If she walked in here right now you'd call her Mrs. McCollum. Everybody talking about Ruby this, Ruby that, just like she everybody's bitch." To which one of the men (Ron Cephas Jones) replies " Listen! She in the damn jail, see, and goin' to the 'lectric chair and she everybody's Ruby now."

Director Kenny Leon shepherds the actors through the intricacies of the play's many scene shifts with a dynamic almost cinematic production. The expressionistic scenic design by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg works well though one could have wished that the scenery could have been moved on and off stage with a little less fuss and noise.

On balance, the strengths of Everybody's Ruby outweigh its weaknesses. To paraphrase from one of the season's stellar revivals: It is a play to which attention should be paid.

Our review of Zora Neale Hurston

By by Thulani Davis
Directed by Kenny Leon
With Viola Davis, Crystal Fox, Beau Gravitte, J.R. Horne, Ron C. Jones, Bernie McInerney, Tuck Milligan, Bill Nunn, Chuck Patterson, Phylicia Rashad, Raynor Scheine, Peggy Scott, James Shanklin, Bryan Webster
Costume design: Mariann Verheyen
Lighting design: Tom Sturge
Sound design: Jeffrey Carlson
Original music: Dwight Andrews
Dramaturg: Shirley Fishman
Presented by The Public Theatre/Anspacher Theatre, 425 Lafayette St. (212/539-8500)
/3/23/99-3/28/99; opened 3/08/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/06/99 matinee performance

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