Written by Michael Bettencourt and directed by David Hallatt, the Footlight Players' A Question of Color is based on a true story of a biracial relationship in North Carolina that begins around 1900 and spans the first four decades of the 20th century. In an interesting side note, Hallatt was part of the 2002 cast at its world premiere in Buffalo, N.Y.
The show opens and closes with the seven cast members evenly spaced, standing facing the audience. Each takes turns narrating events that set up the action, and at the end, they give concluding remarks. In a nutshell, miscegenation was illegal in North Carolina from 1875 until 1972, and the play follows one couple who defied that law.
Shavone Gadsden plays the no-nonsense, tough Susan Morgan, and John Black is the charming, tenacious John Wicks. The show has the potential to portray a movingly tender relationship. There is much back-and-forth teasing between the two, and out of love and respect for Susan, John even takes her last name when they're married by "jumping the broom." However, at times it feels like they're just going through the motions. The pair lacks the chemistry so essential to carry out such important roles. There's also a strange part where Susan beats John with a stick — domestic abuse darkens the supposed loving relationship.
Lisa Montgomery plays Aunt Becky — a "preacher" figure who marries the two and houses them for a good bit of the play. Montgomery has a strong singing voice and is a good comic actor, but her hysterics toward the end are a bit overdone. John Smalls, as Deacon Bell, is a good gospel singer and an earnest but duplicitous servant to the Goforths, a rich local family. The few times the cast sing together, their voices blend nicely.
The sinister characters are the most interesting to watch: David Loar plays two convincingly cruel overseer characters — Peter Grier and Grover Bolling — and Linda Esposito is compelling in her role as the mean and prissy landowner's wife, Mrs. Goforth. Bryan Toole, as Colonel Goforth, is a persuasively numb and nefarious drunk and lecher.
Sounds of gunshots, trumpets, and whacks from fighting scenes are on-cue, and the bluegrass music pre- and post-show and in-between the acts is fitting for the North Carolina setting.
Scenic and Light Designer Richard Heffner, who also recently stepped up as Footlight's executive director, keeps the stage simple and fittingly dark with a black background and risers, and a few white wicker chairs at one corner of the stage. The lighting is also well-placed; when the two main characters meet by the river, for example, shadows from the scrim feature flowing water. Most of the time, harsh red lights and shadows underscore the violence and dark racial tensions.
An interesting directorial move is that there are very few props; instead, the actors themselves often serve as props. In one scene, for instance, the white characters serve as obstacles to the couple: they are the trees, streams, brambles that the couple must overcome. However, at times we're not sure what to make of these. There's an odd moment when a character dies and then immediately afterward serves as one of these "props," for example.
Costumes, by Naomi Doddington, are appropriate to the piece: Mr. Grier is in white T-shirt and black suspenders, Mr. Goforth looks rumpled and slovenly, and John, a happy-go-lucky character, is in a pink shirt and matching garter socks in the beginning. Aunt Becky looks the religious woman in her old fashioned high-collared blouse and cross. When several years pass, the Morgans are dressed more aristocratically, and Deacon Bell is noticeably grey. The overseers, in their elderly roles, totter around making threats. Aside from their expensive clothes, though, the Morgans don't seem to age.
It's a play largely about how the past infects the present, and as Susan says, "Color darkens everything." The play effectively portrays horrific master and slave dynamics, pointing to unfair business dealings and brutality (beatings, rape). It highlights the frequency of sexual relationships between masters and slaves and its effects on marital relationships.
The cast and crew should be applauded for bringing the important issue of enduring love despite the hardships of racism to the Charleston stage; however, it's a story most are familiar with and some good editing would do it justice.