Ron Cephas Jones and Gin Hammond
in Noon Day Sun
(© Rebecca Woodman Taylor)
Ron Cephas Jones and Gin Hammond
in Noon Day Sun
(© Rebecca Woodman Taylor)
Given that Cassandra Medley's first name recalls the grim Greek clairvoyant, it's less than surprising that many dire and intertwined predictions occur in Noon Day Sun, which premiered at Montclair's Theatrefest Theatre in 2000 and is now making its NYC bowing at the Beckett Theater. And while this 1950s-set cautionary tale about the pitfalls of pretending not to be what you are is full of too many coincidences and overheard or witnessed if unheard conversations, it is nevertheless a well-acted, stark drama.

Here, two characters can't resist denying their roots, with one doing so against strong religious urges. The most prominent is Zena (Gin Hammond), a light-skinned black woman who starts "living white" when she's mistaken by a train conductor for a Caucasian woman in a colors-only car. Soon, Zena, who calls herself Wendy, is married to up-by-his-bootstraps car salesman Brian (Michael McGlone) and is attending a Detroit sales meeting, where her status-seeking husband declares himself a Presbyterian to bigoted, credentials-impressed boss Lloyd (David Newer).

Meanwhile, Zena/Wendy has made herself the Southern belle of the Autorama ball -- until she comes across maintenance man Reuben (Ron Cephas Jones), who happens to be the hard-drinking Mississippian to whom she's still legally wed and with whom she suffered the loss of twin infant daughters. Though Reuben assures her he'll make no trouble -- because he's involved with God-fearing Pearl (Melanie Nicholls-King) -- Zena/Wendy insists on subsequent conciliatory meetings that are witnessed, one each, by Pearl and Brian. Difficulties ensue catching them all in nets of their own intentional or unintentional devising.

This is mighty stern stuff, and there's no question that Medley has powerful feelings about her troubling subject matter, right down to drawing contrasting portraits of Zena/Wendy, who's tortuously trapped in her light skin, and of Pearl, a dark-skinned African-American with wretched childhood memories. There's also no way around self-hatred and its severely damaging consequences being the overarching theme here, and intolerance and fear being the motivating force. For example, Brian's battle with himself over what he's forfeiting to succeed and how it spills over to his treatment of Zena/Wendy underlines Medley's beliefs about humanity's inhumanity.

As Victor Lirio sure-handedly directs this stark material, he also ensures the characters are all well-played (and dressed according to society stratum by costume designer Arnulfo Maldonado). Hammond, looking very much the part, has the most to do and does it with the proper coursing anxiety. Jones makes sincerity an almost palpable commodity. McGlone and Newer imbue the Brian-Lloyd scenes into the right kind of boss-underling gamesmanship. Penelope Darcel has fun with the roles of fearful conjure women -- one old school and the other decidedly new school. And perhaps because Nicholls-King has the play's single most powerful speech, about how skin coloration is its own imprisoning factor, she's the evening scene-stealer.

While Medley is absolutely right about the inadvisability of anyone's "living white"-- literally or figuratively -- she runs the accompanying risk of subliminally proposing that people survive best by knowing their place. That's certainly not what she means, and she could make it plainer.