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Echoes of the past 

New plays tear pages from Southern history

In Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote one of his most famous lines: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." The idea that history still puts demands on the present still has relevance in the contemporary South -- even in the early 21st century, with its diminishing cultural memory, and even in Atlanta, where historic sites and institutions are forever being repurposed.

Two new plays grapple with the South's painful efforts to grow past its racist legacy. At Theatrical Outfit, Waiting to Be Invited depicts four African-American women seeking to desegregate the restaurant at a prominent downtown Atlanta department store in 1964. Theatrical Outfit's downtown performing space contains its own historic echo to the action: the Balzer Theatre occupies the old space of Herren's restaurant, the first Atlanta eatery to voluntarily desegregate in 1962.

At Synchronicity Performance Group, Voices Underwater looks to bygone days from a more symbolic, borderline supernatural perspective as a modern-day couple takes ownership of a decaying Alabama plantation, unaware of its history as both a Union hospital during the Civil War and as a locus for Klan activity in the 1920s. Both plays plunge into the richness and complexity of Southern heritage, and though they uncover treasures, they also find difficulties in making the past come to life.

S.M. Shephard-Massat's Waiting to Be Invited takes place shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered restaurants in Dixie to desegregate, so simply ordering a salad carried unpredictable risks. Despite the court rulings, the play's four African-American ladies have every reason not to expect the white establishment to play fair. When socially conscious Ruth (Marguerite Hannah) suffers from last-minute jitters in Act Two, she expresses what they're all feeling. Will the white owners overcharge them? Spit in their food? Have them poisoned, beaten or arrested?

Directed by Carol Mitchell-Leon, Waiting reproduces that sense of a historic "threshold" moment, when no one knew exactly how things would play out. In fact, the anticipation is everything in Waiting, and the first act takes place almost entirely on a bus headed to downtown Atlanta. The ladies -- particularly cantankerous Odessa (Donna Biscoe) -- banter with the driver (Tony Vaughn) and express the emotional spectrum of anger, fear and humor. Though charming, the sequence feels drawn-out and padded, and some of the characters turn out to be surprisingly sketchy, particularly the women played by Jade Lambert-Smith and S. Renee Clark.

The first act's time of highest tension comes when white Mrs. Grayson (Jackie Prucha) gets on the bus and asks one of the black women to move farther back. Mrs. Grayson represents all the contradictions of the Civil Rights-era South, being oblivious to the racial dynamics, oozing white condescension yet remaining otherwise perfectly friendly and charming to the rest. When she sings part of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," the other women share pricelessly funny "Oh, no she didn't!" reactions.

Mrs. Grayson's presence on the bus puts more of that uniquely Southern anxiety onstage than Voices Underwater ever finds, despite its dark, violent material. Abi Basch's challenging, complex script seldom finds a spark, despite some undeniably vivid images. Lisa Johnson's set converts nearly the entire performing space at 7 Stages' Back Stage to a dusty, dimly lit attic with a framework of rafters jutting out toward the audience.

Three sets of characters move through different timelines at an Alabama plantation. In 1864, a wheelchair-bound Union soldier (M. Shaiken) tries to keep personal secrets while writing love letters to strangers. In 1923, Jennie (Mary Alice Skalko) describes life as a the daughter of a white supremacist. In the present day, Jewish Emma (Hope Mirlis) and African-American Franklin (Theroun Patterson) wind up in the mansion on a dark, stormy night, shortly after an episode of police harassment.

Voices Underwater reveals one memorable tableau after another, some involving drowning, lynching and flashes of nudity. Boxes of old books come flying out of the darkness with unnerving crashes, like the rude intrusion of history. At one point, the ghostly Jennie hangs over a leaky place in the ceiling, speaking poetically of her childhood, and Franklin, blind and deaf to her, stops the drip by putting his shirt in her mouth. When the shirt drops, water and words tumble out. The attraction of the taboo provides an unspoken motif throughout the play.

You can imagine that Voices Underwater's script might read like compelling poetry, but spoken aloud, the dialogue sounds self-conscious and unrealistic ("I will not drown myself two by two."). Skalko and Shaiken come across more like stock characters from Tennessee Williams than living, breathing personalities from the past. Not just the characters but also the actors seem to suffer from emotional disconnection, and when Emma and Franklin finally share a fleeting, flirty moment, it's a relief to see something recognizably human on the stage.

Voices Underwater tries to engage more ideas than it can satisfyingly handle in less than 90 minutes -- not just racism, anti-Semitism and hauntings, but also post-traumatic stress and even a transgender element. Waiting to Be Invited finds more rewards by focusing on a single, seemingly minor historical tipping point, but doesn't quite tap the full potential of its premise. Both plays demonstrate the challenges of delving into the Southern past. You can dig forever and never touch bottom.

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