It’s the mid-1960’s and we’re in rural North Carolina at the Eugenics Department Field Office. It’s presided over by the jovial but imperious middle-aged Mary Tom Walker, the widow of a prominent surgeon. Her new assistant is the soft-spoken African-American Temperence Hedgepeth who has a nursing degree and is in her 30’s. They review reports from social workers regarding candidates for sterilization, approving or denying them.
This agency was created by the state legislature in 1933 to oversee government funded sterilizations of the “mentally defective or feeble-minded” for the “public good.” Of the nearly 8,000 people who were subjected to this procedure, 5,000 were black and 85% were women. In many cases there was coercion and ulterior, often racist motives. The program was discontinued in 1977 and the laws abolished in 2003.
In the third of the play’s 10 scenes, we meet an amiable black woman who has four biological children and five foster children. She’s come to the office to decline to have one of her foster daughters sterilized despite being threatened with cessation of her benefits. This intense exchange and its later resolution is one the highlights of the play. Also compelling is the thread of an odious lower class white man arranging to have his pregnant daughter that he sexually molested sterilized after she gives birth.
Ms. Anselmi succeeds at imparting her solid research on the subject through her sharp dialogue spoken by her strong characters. The play falters with the addition of a chorus who are actors that appear in darkness during scene transitions to intone the names of disparate celebrities such as Charles Dickens, Johnny Cash and Mother Theresa. The explanation for these many names that are cited is that due to their personality quirks they would have been sterilized in North Carolina. That supposition is arguably a stretch, the main thing is this obtrusively weakens the momentum considerably.
The title refers to a pro-sterilization pamphlet with drawings and simplistic statements that was distributed by the authorities. Instead of these images being projected as a prologue, there’s an extraneous opening scene taking place at a hall solely to justify a slide show presentation with the characters in attendance.
Director Cezar Williams ably stages this rather unwieldy work by a command of the visual with fitfully compelling results and guides the cast to inspired performances.
The captivating Okema T. Moore as Temperence is initially subdued and marvelously develops the character’s emotional volatility as more is revealed about her. Wonderfully reveling in the Southern belle mannerisms of Mary Tom is Erin Gilbreth who realistically displays her Nurse Ratchet tendencies to chilling effect. As the embattled foster mother, Adiagha Faizah is poignantly towering. Atiya Yanique Taylor has heartbreaking moments as her daughter.
Like one of the tormenters in the film Deliverance, Ross Hewitt is sleazy and frightening as the white trash incestuous father. Cherie Danielle provides terrific comic relief as a feisty young volunteer for sterilization while conveying the stark reality of the bleak existence of an unwed mother of four. Malikha Mallette beautifully captures maternal concern for her epileptic daughter as she explains her rationale for sterilization with touching articulation. “Helper for social workers” is how the role of Mary Tom’s brutish henchman is described and the athletic Carl Fisk’s youthfulness magnifies his violent malevolence.
Scenic designer Jamie Larson’s institutional office set is suitably drab and there’s a clever recreation of a white trash hovel. Elizabeth Mak’s lighting design skillfully shades the actions and dreamy portions. Ms. Mak’s projection design ably recreates the scurrilous pamphlet and the historical facts that are periodically displayed above the playing area. Sound designer Caroline Eng adeptly realizes the effects and musical snippets. With period and regional details, costume designer DeShon Elem perfectly clothes each character.
The play was a finalist at the 2012 Playwrights First festival and is presented by the American Bard Theater Company. Their objective is “to produce classical and contemporary plays that connect to our current sociopolitical climate, to join with our audience in exploring humanity, and to develop a varied network of artists.”
Though flawed, You Wouldn’t Expect definitely fulfills those goals and vividly explores a little-known chapter in modern American history.
You Wouldn’t Expect (through October 7, 2018)
American Bard Theater Company
The Chain Theater, 312 West 36th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.americanbard.org
Running time: two hours with one intermission