You can only imagine that life must have been tough for an African-American lesbian couple living in the South in the 1890s. But Shirlene Holmes's play A Lady and a Woman doesn't give that impression at all. What's striking about the 1995 drama is the relative ease with which prim innkeeper Miss Flora and cheerful tomboy traveling butcher Biddie fall in love.
That impression is at least partly due to the happy-go-lucky openness and confidence with which Dawn L. Troupe plays Biddie in Theatre Rhinoceros' Bay Area premiere at the Eureka Theatre. From the moment she strolls into the inn in trousers and a cowboy hat, she exudes confidence and seems to have not a care in the world. San Francisco Mime Troupe mainstay Velina Brown is wary and disapproving at first as Miss Flora, but her curiosity and Biddie's folksy charm get the better of her, and they soon become inseparable. From there you just know that one of the times her lodger leans in patiently for a kiss, Flora won't be able to change the subject anymore.
Flora worries about what people might think, sure, but her reservations are more basic than that. She's a very religious woman and wants to be sure that she's not doing anything wrong. After kicking out an abusive husband, she'd set her mind to live alone. And even if she wants to sleep with Biddie, she says, "I don't know where the parts go. I ain't never read no book on this." If she can get past all that, it's smooth sailing from there.
One might worry what could happen if they get caught by unenlightened neighbors, but here's the thing: it's a two-character play. Nobody's going to come barging in. That may sound glib, but the scenes between the two women, with days and weeks passing between them, give the impression that they're in a world of their own, with nobody to bother them. We hear about some town gossip, but they're not too worried about it, and neither are we. For the most part, life seems remarkably simple -- actually much more so than in your usual romance. For once, nothing much goes wrong.
That makes the stakes seem awfully low, or at least no higher than for anyone else who's kept her heart safe in her own keeping for a long time and now entrusts it to someone else. The potential for drama in the play is largely due to our knowledge that they're living in a time and place different from our own, but that's considerably diluted by the fact that we don't have much sense of the world they live in. The setting is generically "the South," seemingly a strictly African-American community, but the little we hear about it doesn't make the outside world sound real or like anything to be concerned about.
We do get some sense of the period in small details. Flora is also the town healer, and the script contains a lot of fascinating folk wisdom about superstitious-sounding cures such as placing an ax under the bed of a woman during childbirth to "cut the pain." In fact the lengthy talk about a birth that Flora attends offers more drama than the romance that's the focus of the story.
Theatre Rhinoceros, the country's longest continuously running professional queer theater, gives the play an extremely bare-bones staging by artistic director John Fisher. Jon Wai-keung Lowe's spare set shows little but a bed and a small front desk or a table before the unadorned walls of the inn. Each character has basically one outfit for the whole show, which leads to some cognitive dissonance when they talk about how they're dressed. Flora's handsome purple dress (courtesy of costumer Daisy Neske) is the same when the two meet as it is when Biddie compliments her on it weeks later, seemingly never having seen it before, and it's the same when Flora protests later on that she's not properly dressed.
The two women sing spirituals and other traditional numbers beautifully a cappella during scene changes. These musical interludes don't feed into the story at all, but occasionally there's a perverse juxtaposition of the song choice and what the characters were just talking about. After a conversation about applying grease to the nethers to ease the passage of an infant, they sing "Shortnin' Bread" ("Mama's little baby loves shortnin', shorting'"). Talk about getting a baby girl and naming her Jesus leads into "Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine."
It's a sweet if skeletal story, and Brown and Troupe help maintain interest through the women's charming banter and sheer likeability. So often in a drama, or in a comedy for that matter, you don't want anything bad to befall the characters, even though you know it has to because it wouldn't be much of a play otherwise. Well, in this case you're in luck. A Lady and a Woman may not be much of a play, but it's a fine romance.
A Lady and a Woman runs through March 24, 2013 at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit therhino.org.
All photos: David Wilson.