With Its Pointed Take on Miss Julie, the Black Rep Begins Its Season with a Bang

Sep 14, 2016 at 6:00 am
John (Eric J. Conners) and Clarissa (Alicia Revé Like) dread another visit from Miss Julie.
John (Eric J. Conners) and Clarissa (Alicia Revé Like) dread another visit from Miss Julie. PHILLIP HAMER

Clarissa and John lead stable lives on the Hodge Tobacco Plantation. Both are free black people in Reconstruction-era Virginia, employees of a never-seen white man who is dying. They are skilled (he as a foreman, she as a traditional healer and all-purpose caregiver) and intelligent, certainly able to roll with whatever changes come after the death of Captain Hodge.

Except for Miss Julie. Neither of them are prepared for what Miss Julie is about to do to their world.

Playwright Mark Clayton Southers' Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is a rewritten version of August Strindberg's drama Miss Julie, which is about the dangerous flirtation between upper-class Miss Julie and the servant John. Southers moves the action from class-conscious Sweden to a supposedly class-free America in which all participants are free and equal. This allows him to play with issues of race, power and wealth inequality — and Southers doesn't play nice. The Black Rep's current production of the play, directed by Andrea Frye, is prickly and pointed, with a tendency to direct those points into our most tender area — the conscience. It's a play that uses family secrets, American history and the very tense present to leave a lasting mark.

Eric J. Conners and Alicia Revé Like are very good as John and Clarissa. They are nominally a couple, but both still long for former lovers. Conners plays John as a man who faces all potential conflicts with confidence. Like's Clarissa is depressed, a woman emotionally broken by the unexplained disappearance of her mother. John, who loves a good time, complains at one point that Clarissa can't escape the slave mentality; she denies herself any enjoyment and knows only work and sorrow.

Laurie McConnell's Julie is a monster, plain and simple. The daughter of Captain Hodge, she's the smartest, the prettiest and the most important person in the room — in her own stated estimation. She also believes she's the best friend John and Clarissa could ever want. This despite Julie's habit of dismissing Clarissa as an inferior, refusing to believe her black "friends" could have dreams or desires outside of the plantation and her liberal use of racial slurs. If Facebook were around in 1888, Miss Julie would start a lot of posts with "I'm not racist, but..."

Miss Julie has set her sights on sleeping with John, and she's not shy about letting him know (and in front of Clarissa as well). She caresses, she touches inappropriately and even throws herself in John's path. This, despite knowing it's a death sentence for John. But John is undeniably attracted to her despite (or perhaps because of) the danger. Frye paces this deadly courtship as a series of interrupted trysts that draw Julie and John inexorably closer.

By the time it's all over the balance of power has swung to Clarissa. Her kindness and her ability to play the game — the game being control — see her through. Like delivers her final speech not entirely as a valedictory; she hones the razor edge of Southers' play to its sharpest point: This game we're playing destroys the winners as well as the losers. Maybe it's time to change the rules.;