Though the Footlight Players' antebellum hall at 20 Queen St. didn't serve as a theatrical venue until the late 1930s, the city's lengthy theatrical history gazes down on audiences from a 1946 mural depicting the forgotten faces of Charleston's long-dead theatrical royalty.
The past feels dense at Footlight, and after 24 years on staff, Producing Director Richard Heffner senses it, too.
"There's something about [this hall], and I'm convinced it has something to do with all the people who've come through here over the past 70 years," Heffner says.
So maybe it's that slightly blurred sense of past and present that makes A Question of Color such a potentially interesting addition to this year's Footlight season. First produced 10 years ago in Buffalo, N.Y., the script by prolific New Jersey playwright Michael Bettencourt is an adaptation of Sara Beattie's fictionalized memoir of her grandparents. Married in violation of North Carolina's Reconstruction-era law criminalizing interracial marriage, Beattie's white grandfather and black grandmother led lives affected by profound injustice. It's an obscure theatrical work dipped in an ugly history.
That doesn't make it standard fare for Charleston, where questions of race, both past and present, are inextricably woven into a culture known for papering over topics that cannot be discussed politely. Neither is it standard fare for a community theater company like Footlight.
But that simplistic stereotype of Footlight might be in flux. The company's Late Night series is now in its seventh season of offering edgier plays aimed at younger audiences, and the company's recent production of Porgy and Bess (directed by Henry Clay Middleton, an African-American director) at Dock Street seems to have put a happier coda on one the city's most embarrassing racist failures. Though the 1935 Gershwin opera is set in Charleston, the first attempt at producing it here in the 1950s fell apart over practical concerns about how to keep the audience segregated.
So does the scheduling of A Question of Color on the heels of Porgy signal a shift in Footlight's direction? Not really, Heffner says. In the company's deliberations about this season's lineup, Porgy and Bess was discussed more as classic American musical theater and less like a racially themed piece. A Question of Color arrived via a pitch by first-time Footlight director David Hallatt, and stood on its own, according to Heffner.
"It's a little atypical for us," Heffner says. "It's a very difficult and unflinching look at these issues. It's not a simple, clear-cut morality tale ... If a play is a serious examination [of a difficult topic], it becomes very complex very fast. So that's the strength of the play."
Hallatt's connection to the play dates back to its premier in Buffalo. The English-born actor/director wound up playing all the white male roles in the original 2002 production, and has long considered it an interesting piece.
"It's the story of these two people living under the radar, is how we'd say it right now," Hallatt says. "They want to stay out of everybody's way, not cause any problems, because they know that one misstep — it's like having the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head. One misstep will bring the whole world down on them.
"The [North Carolina] law against miscegenation was passed in 1875, and it stayed on the statute books until 1972," he adds. "[This play] says to people, 'you don't want to be like this.' It's like when they put Prohibition in place. It caused more trouble having it than letting people have a drink. And it's the same thing with this. It caused so much heartbreak and sorrow for people."
Whether that message carries as much moral gravity with audiences in 2012, with a biracial president on the November ballot, remains to be seen. Yet there's still that intangible something in the hall at the Footlight Players Theatre, where the city's segregated past stares down from the walls above, in silent, fading judgment.