The unpretentious heroines of 'Waiting'

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Sometimes big changes come by modest means. Individual acts of faith and courage may, in fact, move mountains.

"Waiting to be Invited," by S.M. Shephard-Massat, which received its world premire at the Denver Center Theatre Company last week, zeroes in on one such unpretentious moment of heroism. In fact, the award-winning play presents an incident from the playwright's own family history - her grandmother is Miss Louise, one of the brave ladies in the story.

On a hot summer day in Atlanta in 1961, three friends board a bus for an hour drive downtown just to go to lunch at a major department store.

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What makes their lunch date momentous is that these three ladies are middle-aged African-American factory workers who are staging their own sit-in. The Supreme Court has just ruled that separate facilities are no longer legal, but the women are up against hundreds of years of prejudice that may erupt in violence.

The fabulous ensemble acting brings Ms. Shephard-Massat's poignant play to vivid life. Each of the actors captures the spirit of his or her character with precision and grace. Miss Odessa (Ebony Jo-Ann) prickles with a lifetime of humiliations and abuse. Miss Delores (Candy Brown Houston), the idealist, holds the Supreme Court decision as a golden promise. The warm-hearted and even-tempered Miss Louise (Lynette Du Pre) radiates sense and sympathy.

Bus driver Palmeroy Bateman (Keith L. Hatten) brings wit and realism to the story as he banters with the women, worries over their well-being, and reminds them how a few short years ago, black men like him were not allowed to drive buses.

An elderly white woman, Miss Grayson (Jane Welch), gets on the bus expressly to defeat our expectations - we assume she represents the Old South. But this preacher's widow, who believes a Baptist is one step below a Methodist, is no racist. She opens her Bible and preaches the Gospel with amusing zeal. And when she says, "Ye shall know the truth," Miss Odessa exuberantly responds, "And the truth shall make you free."

All these women know their Bible. It is the ground upon which they stand, and it is the thing that relates them to each other. Later, when the three friends are joined by a fourth, Miss Ruth, they will find strength to face what they must by spiritual means.

Arm-in-arm they repeat the 23rd Psalm, which takes on new meaning under the circumstances. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.... Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies...."

Ms. Shephard-Massat was raised, she says, in the spiritual tradition of the South.

"My family is steeped in religion," she says. "Belief in God gives you the strength to go forward.... It's part of the makeup of this part of the country."

When Miss Grayson and Miss Odessa quote the Bible, it is because they both know it, she says. "And if I believe it for you, you have to believe it for me."

We are used to the flamboyant dramatics of the movies and television. A quiet play like this one gently agitates complacency while it underscores the goodness of ordinary people at their best. It is an antidote to the cynicism of popular culture because it is honest and real. Ms. Shephard-Massat allows the narrative to unfold in so natural a way that the moral spirit of the tale feels inevitable and gripping.

Each of these women has practical, genuine reasons to confront hatred peaceably. The appeal of the play is universal, helping us remember what should not be forgotten, and encouraging us to review the choices we make every day. HBO and Sony, and several important regional theaters, are interested in the play, and it will be exciting to watch its progress.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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