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In Two Plays At Black Rep, The Past Informs The Present

The Black Rep will present web streams of two plays by Melda Beaty.
Melda Beaty
Melda Beaty
The Black Rep will present web streams of two plays by Melda Beaty, pictured here.

Melda Beaty spent about six weeks in her birthplace of Jackson, Mississippi, before her family moved north to Chicago on the tail end of the Great Migration. But the stories told to her by her elders stuck with her and continue to inspire her work.

“I find the experiences of the older Black generation fascinating. They are full of perseverance, they’re full of determination, triumph. They’re also full of a lot of hardship,” Beaty said.

The Black Rep presents online streams of two Beaty plays this month.

“Coconut Cake” features Black Rep founder and Producing Director Ron Himes in a co-production with the Ensemble Theatre in Houston, where it was recorded in June. It centers on a group of retired Black men who gather every morning at McDonald’s for coffee and conversation. “Coconut Cake” streams online three times this weekend. Beaty and director Eileen Morris will participate in an online discussion about the play on Sept. 18.

The Black Rep will also stream a live performance of Beaty’s “Front Porch Society” directed by Himes on Sept. 25. It will replay on Sept. 26 and 27. Most of the play takes place on the day Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. It addresses the lasting wounds of racial trauma across decades.

Beaty spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin about the inspiration behind her work.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: Something that jumps out from your work for the stage is its attention to the experience of older Americans, and that’s a period of life that is really underrepresented in American TV or film or theater. What draws your eye there?

Melda Beaty: It probably started as a kid, listening to stories of older relatives. So my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers. And so when they talk about their childhood, they talk about the good old days, they talk about life in the South, I clung to every word.

I find the experiences of the older Black generation fascinating. They’re full of perseverance, they’re full of determination, triumph. They’re also full of a lot of hardship. And some sadness and some dysfunction. For whatever reason that fascinates me. And so when I think about telling stories, they start there. They start in those memories.

Ron Himes is the founder and producing director of the Black Rep.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
The Black Rep's Producing Director Ron Himes performs in "Coconut Cake" and directs "Front Porch Society."

Again, nothing I planned to do with “Coconut Cake,” it just kind of was like the complement to “Front Porch Society,” the experience of older Black women juxtaposed with the experience of older Black men.

Goodwin: In “Coconut Cake,” Eddie and his friends are retired, they hang out at McDonald’s drinking coffee and reading the paper and sometimes playing chess.

Beaty: “Coconut Cake” is really based on some research that I did. I mean, I actually went to their spaces, at McDonald's. I went to three or four separate McDonald's in Chicago, early in the morning. And I sat there and I listened and I eavesdropped. And sometimes I introduced myself and explained what I was doing.

It was fascinating. It was fascinating to hear their camaraderie. This was their safe space. Just like in "Front Porch Society," the front porch is the safe space for the women.

Goodwin: The world of “Front Porch Society,” in which several women on, yes, a front porch — the neighbor comes over, the postman comes by to chat for a bit, they all know each other from decades going past — it sounds like that’s not necessarily an environment you grew up in, but is it one that is very familiar to you?

Beaty: Yes. I didn't experience that in Mississippi but many, many Black families in the South did — or still do.

However, when I got to Chicago, my grandmother would sit on the front porch of her best friend’s home. And her best friend was named Miss Honey. And they would sit on the front porch, and Miss Honey would sit on one end and my grandmother would the other, and they would just be out there all day. They would talk or they would just be.

Goodwin: Something that’s fascinating to me about “Front Porch Society” is the way you indicate the long- term toll of anti-Black racism, and the interplay of history and today. It takes place mainly on Election Day 2008 — a day that a lot of people, particularly Black folks in this country, experienced as a moment of change, maybe even of transformation. But in your protagonist’s world, much more palpable to her is a 41-year-old crime, a racist crime, that haunts her.

Beaty: Right. When I decided to write “Front Porch Society,” around that time there was a scandal at a cemetery where I lived. And that is the cemetery where Emmett Till’s body was laid to rest. And so what happens in Front Porch Society is very reminiscent of what happened to Emmett Till

So you have this woman who has been carrying this pain in her heart. She doesn’t know what to do with this pain. And so she brings it out to her front porch every day. And she's been bringing it on this front porch for 41 years.

And that’s true of society today, unfortunately. What many Black people are facing is reminiscent, still lingers from the past.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.