Even Grace Dubose Dunbar’s name matches the role of doyenne.
It’s elegant yet regal. Most of all, it’s flush with status, because Grace’s name is part of a legacy founded in 100 years of the Nacirema Society.
Her grandmother founded the organization in Montgomery, Alabama, alongside Catherine Green’s grandmother. Now it’s their responsibility to stage the society’s centennial celebration.
And UpStage Theatre is here to issue an invitation to its production of Pearl Cleage’s dramatic comedy, “The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years.”
The show opens Friday, Feb. 27, the weekend after UpStage takes its production of “Indigo Blues” to the American Association of Community Theaters’ Louisiana State Play Festival in Alexandria.
And Grace Dunbar is running the Nacirema show.
“It’s set in 1964 in Montgomery, and Dr. King is in town, and though Grace respects Dr. King, she’s above all that,” says Talisha Diaz, who plays Grace. “In her mind, the civil rights battle is not her fight. She’s in another class.”
Everything’s perfect until Alpha Campbell Jackson pays Grace a visit.
Alpha is a single mother whose daughter, Lillie, dreams of attending Fisk University. Fisk isn’t just any school — it’s the school that all female Nacirema descendants traditionally attend.
But Grace’s granddaughter, Gracie, has other plans.
“Gracie dreams of being a journalist, and she wants to go to New York,” says Ava Brewster Turner, founder and artistic director of UpStage Theatre and director of this play. “Grace plans for Gracie to attend Fisk then marry Bobby Green, who is Catherine Green’s grandson. That way, their two families will be joined in the Nacirema Society.”
As for Bobby, he’s in love with Lillie, and Alpha knows she has to do whatever it takes to help her Lillie.
She turns to a 40-year-old rumor for help. The Nacirema Society is reserved only for families in the upper echelon of black society, which includes doctors, lawyers and successful businessmen. Neither Alpha nor her mother, who worked as a maid for Grace Dunbar’s family, fit into this group.
The buzz was Grace’s husband, a prominent doctor, had an affair with Alpha’s mother. Alpha decides to use the rumor to blackmail Grace for Lillie’s tuition.
“She doesn’t know if the rumor is true, and she blackmails Grace only for the amount of the tuition, not a penny more,” Turner says. “And Grace can’t let this get out, because it’s the 100th anniversary of the Nacirema Society. It’s a comedy, a scandal and a romance.”
And the story ends with a juicy twist.
“It’s a surprise,” Turner says. “It’s totally unexpected.”
And facing a dilemma in the midst of this mess is Bobby, played by Dexter Alexander, who not only is new to UpStage Theatre but to the stage.
“This is my first play ever,” he says. “Acting has been a hobby of mine, but I was involved in athletics in college, and I didn’t have time to act.”
Alexander was a four-year, walk-on safety on the LSU football team. He’s now working on his master’s degree in kinesiology and business. But he did take a class in improvisational acting while working on his bachelor’s degree in communications.
“The professor loved what I did, and asked me to come back the next day,” he says. “When I went back, there were three or four professors there. They wanted me to act in some of the campus productions, but I couldn’t because of football.”
He jumped at the chance to audition for the role of Bobby.
“Bobby has to decide what to do,” Alexander says. “If he marries Gracie, he keeps his inheritance. If he decides to go with Lillie, who he loves, he loses his inheritance. I looked beyond the lines and what was happening around him to develop his personality, and I really like him as a person.”
Bobby has interaction with both Grace and Alpha, both of whom show multiple dimensions throughout the play.
“You see different sides to Alpha’s personality each time she interacts with another character,” says Krystal Blatcher, who plays Alpha. “She is multilayered, but she knows that she has to do whatever she needs to do to help her daughter.”
Even if it means turning the Nacirema Society on its head.