Dateline: Monroe, Louisiana, 1946. Setting: The stage of the Austin Playhouse.
Opening scene: Simple, quiet, yet beyond powerful.
A handful of people stand solemnly. A young African-American man wearing denim overalls with large side pockets crosses the stage and pantomimes reaching up and wrapping his arms around something. This move is reminiscent of a bear hug, but it looks as though he’s supporting something weighty.
The man pulls a knife from his overall pocket and appears to cut at something above him. He’s cutting a body out of a tree. There’d been a lynching. The character, Clyde James, later calls the moment simply the “heaviest load I’ve ever carried.”
So the Austin Playhouse sets the stage for their latest performance, “Monroe.”
There are five main characters and one supporting player, and yet the powerful dialogue offers great depth of story and talent from an engaging cast.
“Monroe” is the tale of Cherry Henry and her life in the shadow of a tree at a time in American history when her brother, Jefferson, could indeed be lynched. How does the family, the community go on?
This lynching, we learn, is not an isolated incident in the rural community of the South. Throughout, Cherry struggles—wondering whether to maintain the family’s culture and roots, living under the stifling times of Jim Crowe, or to move away. Her friend Clyde proposes California. There, Cherry says, she could “live near the ocean and see a new world full of beauty and peace.”
“I gave up on happy a long time ago.” That line comes from Cherry’s grandma, “Ma” Henry, rocking on her front porch. That one line speaks of the mood of the times. Yet throughout the play there is laughter, there are hints at romance, thoughts on religion—and even homemade apple pie. A slice of pie and, yes, a slice of life for blacks in the 1940s American South.
Directed by Lara Toner Haddock, and winner of the 2018 Austin Playhouse Festival of New Texas Plays, “Monroe” was written by Austinitie Lisa B. Thompson, a skilled storyteller. The play is dedicated to her great uncle who grew up in Louisiana, in a parish that witnessed the fifth highest number of lynchings in the United States from 1877 to 1950. Thompson carried a list of lynching victims’ names as she attended rehearsals, in hopes of honoring them.
For the uninitiated, the Austin Playhouse is a small, nine-row, theater located on the Austin Community College Campus at Highland, near I-35 and Airport Boulevard. There is not a bad seat in the house.
A glimpse at another time, a walk in another’s shoes, a peek at history and, yes, a few laughs. “Monroe” runs Thursdays-Sundays through the end of September.
Cover photo courtesy Austin Playhouse