The Griot Project’s mission is to continue the rich history of telling good stories for the betterment of the community. This time, the story they’ve chosen to tell is “Before It Hits Home,” written by Cheryl West and directed by Louis Robert Thompson and William Mack. The play which follows the last few months in the life of Wendal Bailey, an African American bisexual male in his early 30’s with AIDS.
Over the course of the play, Bailey has to come to terms with the diagnosis of AIDS, and how it affects his relationships, his family, and his life.
The play was first performed in 1990 and landed off-Broadway in 1992, a time when AIDS was starting to be seen and felt and acknowledged in far-reaching communities, and the Griot Project thought it was still an important story to tell today.
The production took place in the back room of The Table in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood; it’s an expansive space, with some tables and chairs pushed to the back, three rows of chairs set up for an audience facing a simple living room set, and some flats to delineate the playing area. During a preview performance, the play struggled often, but it was difficult to tell if the problems stemmed from tentative scene-changes, dropped lines, or the script itself.
It was clear, though, that from the set to the performances, this was not a production that intended to make things pretty, but to make things true. And in the moments when the cast felt comfortable with the lines and the technical issues didn’t get in the way, the performances absolutely sung. The strongest performance was of Reba Bailey, played by Jan Louden. She brought both a comforting and maternal calm to her performance, while still able to emotionally escalate when the scene called for it. Morgan Younge, as Maybelle, provided great comic relief, without upstaging the seriousness of the subject. Though it took a while for Julian Long to be planted in his character, he was still able to have some beautiful emotional turns. The direction kept the performances grounded in the moment, without playing the end, and created a show where the cast performed as a team. They listened to each other and were in it to fail or succeed together, making the story and relationships the most important thing about this production.
In the talk-back after the show, one of the actors shared that the directors started the rehearsal process by having the actors first understand their characters, their relationships with the other characters in the play, and their character’s relationship with the AIDS virus. This connection the actors gained from the very beginning is the backbone of this production, and it is this connection that will touch almost every audience member. It’s not simply about AIDS, but about family, forgiveness, and the desperation to be accepted for who we are, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t relate to some aspect of this story.
It might seem like a risk to do a play that covers such serious subject matter as we approach Thanksgiving, when other groups stick to safe and fun holiday fare. And it might seem like a risk to invite an audience to watch a clunky preview a week before opening night, but the Griot Project doesn’t seem to be afraid of risk.
If this production comes together as it promised in the preview, it will be well worth the risk they took. It will make you laugh, think and feel, and isn’t that what great theater should do?
The Griot Project will perform “Before It Hits Home” at The Table, 1800 Portland Avenue, on Friday, Nov. 22 at 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 23 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 24 at 4 p.m. and on Sunday, Dec. 1 (World AIDS Day) at 4 p.m. Tickets are $20, and a discussion with the actors and community advocates will follow each performance. More information on Facebook.