Dividing the Estate: A Picture of the South

on stage at the ZACH Theatre for its last weekend!
by Margie Eades
———–
May 29, 2012 – July 1, 2012

Written by Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-winner HORTON FOOTE
Directed bySTEVEN DIETZ (Doubt, Shooting Star and Becky’s New Car)
———–

Last weekend I visited the ZACH Theatre for the first time ever for the opening weekend of Fully Committed. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to return less than a week later for ZACH’s production of Dividing the Estate, written by the celebrated Texan playwright, Horton Foote (1916 – 2009).

The play follows the familiar dysfunctions of a Southern family, exaggerated by financial troubles and imperturbable greed. The Gordon children and grand-children constantly bicker about the future of their family’s historic – and valuable – estate, while Mamma Gordon (excellently portrayed by Marijane Vandivier) prefers to reminisce on days of a bygone era with her elderly servant, Doug (Eugene Lee).

Stella Gordon (Marijane Vandivier) and Doug (Eugene Lee) remember the “good old days” in Dividing the Estate. Photo by Kirk Tuck

If nothing else, Foote’s play serves as historical record of Texas in the 1980s: a Texas where big money and big hair ruled society and a strange sort of veiled racism still tinged the Southern mindset. I would even go as far as to say that this production of the play presents an opportunity for a brutally honest analysis of present-day Texan mentality towards issues such as race.  It was painful to see the characters of Mildred (Janis Stinson) and Cathleen (Sharayah Reed), the estate’s domestic workers, reduced to the stereotype of the large, overbearing Mammy figure. Historically, the Mammy archetype is one of the two roles (the other being the sensual Jezebel stereotype) that have been imposed upon Black actresses throughout the history of popular entertainment.

Mammy Stereotype (from Ethnic Notions by Marlon Riggs 1986)

However Foote must have been aware of the weight of the topic he was dealing with when writing the roles of the Black female domestic workers into the play, right? He did write the screenplay for To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) after all. My concern on Friday night was with how many of Foote’s fellow Texans actually caught on to the seriousness of these depictions. With the audience’s hearty laughter at every cliché “Mmmhmm” and cheeky comment made by the cook and her helper, I had to wonder how many others in the audience were having the same considerations I was about the historical and racial implications of these women’s roles in the script. Perhaps the fact that young Cathleen is attending a junior college while Emily and Sissy Gordon and their thick-headed mother Mary Jo can hardly do simple division presents a more accurate statement from Foote about the status of African-Americans in the South.

Mildred (Janis Stinson) and Cathleen (Sharayah Reed) in Dividing the Estate. Photo by Kirk Tuck

Mary Jo’s character, defined by relentless greed and a bad case of “youngest child syndrome”, is responsible for setting the tone of the entire drama. Unfortunately on Friday night, the lively actress Barbara Chisolm was unable to perform due to a death in the family and was temporarily replaced by Lauren Lane. While Lane played her new role bravely and whined and schemed very convincingly, her reading from a script inevitably took away from the play as a whole.

Marijane Vandivier’s portrayal of Stella “Mamma” Gordon hit straight to home, as I already mentioned. Her facetious quips about “overly educated women” divorce, living through the Great Depression, God’s wrath, reinstating plantation life, and Baptists versus Methodists are quintessentially “Southern grandma”. Whether it is her quirky and stubborn feminine ways or her pursed pink lips and permed white hair, there is something in her character that will remind every Texan of their grandmother. Her comments alone are revealing of the philosophy on life native to the South and make Foote’s play and ZACH’s production worth seeing.

Catch Dividing the Estate in its last weekend on the Kleberg Stage. A few more performances have been added due to popular demand. Get your tickets while you still can!

-M

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