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Long Ride Ahead: The women 'Waiting to Be Invited' are (from left) Cheryl Scales, Sonya Stamper, Susan McKuhen, Pastoria Aquirre, Sharon Moore and Helen Peterson.

Ride to Rights

Tabia Ensemble's 'Waiting to Be Invited' puts the civil rights movement in personal terms

By Michael J. Vaughn

THE PIVOTAL action of Sherry Shepherd-Massat's Waiting to Be Invited consists of four women entering a lunchroom. Sounds pretty mundane, but in this case, context is everything. It's the summer of 1961 in Atlanta, Ga.; the four women are black; and the U.S. Supreme Court has just granted them the right to eat lunch in a "white" department store. The play--presented by Tabia African American Theatre Ensemble--pursues an admirable goal: spelling out one of the civil rights movement's great victories in personal, real-life terms. (The narrative, in fact, is taken from the life of the playwright's mother.)

Unfortunately, Shepherd-Massat takes too long to get to the point. The first act is spent entirely on the bus ride to the store. We're offered some observations on fish sticks ("How do they get a regulah ol' fish to be a stick?"), an eccentric Bible-thumping white woman and a black bus driver concerned at his passengers' mission ("Y'all ain't no prizefighters--y'all is ladies") but nothing much in the way of actual plot development. When the bus finally rolled up to the store at the end of the act, I had to agree with the man in the next row who muttered a relieved "Finally!"

There's nothing wrong with "talky" plays (I've seen too many good ones to think otherwise), but it's a tricky feat, and Shepherd-Massat's second act demonstrates exactly how the first act should have been constructed. Faced with the physical reality of walking into the department store, the four women hesitate and argue and build an act-long debate of dramatic shapes and climaxes.

Ruth (Helen Peterson), a pastor's wife, is the first to get cold feet, composing a list of fears--rat poison, spat-on food, "white person's germs"--that in any other situation might be dismissed as paranoia. "The Supreme Court don't love you," she says. "They don't even know your name." Odessa (Sharon Moore), the most forceful of the women, immediately rises to argue and throws in some personal history involving Ruth and Odessa's straying husband, just to spice things up.

But it's the usually cutesy Louise (Cheryl Scales) who finally hardens their resolve, spelling out their dilemma in a single, powerful line: "We're doing something we've always been told we can't do." Scales' final monologue is eloquent and powerful, as are Moore's performance as Odessa and Sonya Stamper's portrayal of the forever-caught-between Delores. The fault is not in Tabia's stars, but in their play. Waiting to Be Invited is a powerful one-act, waiting to be edited.

Waiting to Be Invited plays Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through Feb. 23 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza Theater, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$20. (408.272.9924)

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From the February 20-26, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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