One could imagine Janee Michelle channeled Katharine Hepburn for her depiction of the strong-minded Celeste Thibodaux in The High Priestess of Dark Alley
, currently running at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre. The actress’ precise enunciation, aristocratic attitude and bouffant hairstyle elicit memories of another overly protective mother from the 1960s film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
, which broke new ground regarding interracial marriage.
A force to be reckoned with, Celeste is trying to dissuade her light-skinned Creole daughter from becoming involved with a man who is “blacker than shoe polish.”
Written and directed by New Orleans native Jackie Alexander, the play is an entertaining and engaging portrayal of a 7th Ward family, exploring the adult daughters’ intense relationships with their overbearing mother as well as their romantic partners. Alexander’s skilled direction of the family dynamics yields a play that is poignant and often a great deal of fun. Some of the subtleties of its racial and class issues may be peculiar to the South, but parents trying to dominate their children’s pairings is a universal story.
The entire play takes place in the living room of a traditional New Orleans home, a set ably designed by Patrice Andrew Davidson. The cohabiting sisters Claire (Kris Sidberry) and Janee (Traci Tolmaire) have very different personalities and their sibling relationship is expressed through playful banter that is teasing yet affectionate.
Claire and Janee aptly personify the yin and yang of romantic relationships. Having separated from her husband, Claire feels disillusioned and longs for dependability, while the fun-loving Janee revels in the excitement over her boisterous boyfriend, Sweet (Nicoye Banks), who works on an offshore oil rig. A natural comic, Banks is spontaneous and unrestrained as her good-time beau; the young couple’s dancing and joking is exuberant and flirty.
Janee and Sweet’s obvious sexual attraction is appealing but his street talk and common manners horrify Celeste. As the family prepares for a sit-down dinner, Sweet admits he’ll likely commit a few faux pas before the night is over.
At church, Claire meets Franklin (Zeb Hollins III), an assistant pastor offering to repair the roof of their house in hopes of winning Claire’s trust. Franklin is modest and genuine, albeit a “country-assed” guy, determined to overcome whatever obstacles are set in the way to romance. The penitent soon-to-be-ex-husband Charles (Dennis Dannel) seems somewhat stiff and unemotional when he arrives to reclaim his wife.
Alexander’s focus as a playwright has always been on examining the African-American experience, including last year’s production of Brothers from the Bottom
— presented at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and starring Wendell Pierce. He has given High Priestess
a real sense of place with local references and jazz riffs drifting in and out. Alexander also paints a realistic portrait of families that anyone can identify with and joy.
The High Priestess of Dark Alley
July 14-17, 21-24
7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; 3 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre
, 616 St. Peter St., (504) 522-2081