The topic of gay rights and gay marriage is a hotbed for theater as of late, what with play after play being produced in Los Angeles alone over the past few years since Prop. 8 was passed. And just when you think the subject can’t come up with an original angle, up pops Jeff Goode’s The Emancipation of Alabaster McGill.
Set in 1865, the action takes place in and around the front porch of a house in a Kentucky border town on the eve of the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation. But this isn’t a play about African-American civil rights. No. The emancipation of one particular slave is used as a metaphor for the right of gay couples to marry as well as gay rights in general.
We first meet the adorable Ethan (Brett Fleisher) and Evan (Matt Valle), two hicks from different towns who have become fast friends. Shirtless in overalls and chewing on weeds, the boys aren’t the brightest of fellas, but what they don’t have upstairs, they have in charm. So much so they seem to be very fond of each other, although openly admitting that hasn’t really occurred yet.
The two meet to “wittle” (used awkwardly as a metaphor for masturbation) and find themselves near the house of their friend Captain Avner Pilicock (James Sharpe). A stoic and genial man, he serves the boys sweet tea and allows them to wittle right there on his front porch. He even joins them. But just as the sun beats down and the three enjoy the day, they witness crazy old Deacon Chickory (Nathaniel Stanton) falling down the hill of his house and landing in the street. Grabbing him before he gets run over by a horse-drawn carriage, the boys bring him onto the front porch with them. There the Deacon explains how much he hates his wife and later, how the church was actually a brothel that has been out of business for some time.
While the Deacon regales the group with stories, a riled-up Deputy Lynch (Jude Evans) arrives to announce that loony old Abraham Lincoln has signed the Emancipation Proclamation allowing the slaves to go free. He believes this to be the end of times and in doing so, reveals himself to be a Klan member ready to do some “hangin’!” Which is when Grocer Baggot (Frank Ensenberger) shows up, hollering about how the Emancipation will cause all sorts of problems with his store, not to mention lower property values.
All of this bigotry is mixed in with the fact that Evan is from a town across the bridge called Collard Green. Because he is a “collard,” he is treated with disdain by many, even the confused Ethan who keeps ignorantly voting for the collards to be hanged even though he is clearly in love with him. It’s as if no-one really knows where they stand because the simple issue of getting along with each other gets confused by everyone’s personal and political agenda.
It’s when Act Two begins and the Emancipation has passed that the Captain’s long-standing African American friend Alabaster is allowed on the porch and the question of racism and bigotry is put into light and compared to gay civil rights. This is done in quite a clever and amusing way. Most notably is the fact that everyone seems to accept Alabaster outright until they are “told” he is black and then suddenly they have a problem with him.
Throughout the active Act Two, the Deacon has a wonderful extended bit on the abominations of the Bible, and the Grocer gets to bombastically try and get the new equality of the blacks to be not so equal.
There are many pleasures in The Emancipation of Alabaster McGill and it’s best to let the giddiness of the story unfold without any idea where it’s going. Not that shocking surprises abound, but Goode is quite good at making his points while disguising them as something else. The only trouble is, he has a lot of points to make and this creates a play that goes on about a half hour too long. It is also so skillfully metamorphosed that the play almost demands a second viewing to get every reference.
Some of the bawdy gay humor doesn’t work, but still manages to cause a chuckle or two. (Evan’s fascination with Alabaster's long knife is pretty funny.) It will certainly get the gays in the audience to laugh, although the play is written so that those against gay marriage will see the error of the ways. Unfortunately, this is another play about gay rights that will be preaching to the choir. Not that it won’t give people that are pro-gay good fodder for arguments to their friends, family and co-workers who are against the equal rights, so in that, it’s a good thing.
All in all, though, The Emancipation of Alabaster McGill is a charming show with terrific actors all around and an original premise that stands out among the myriad of equal rights plays that have flooded our stages. Expertly directed by Eric Curtis Johnson, this is a show to seek out. We just have to get the gays to take that long trip to North Hollywood to see it.
Performances run through June 18 at T.U. Studios, 10943 Camarillo St., NoHo. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at skypilottheatre.com.