At noon on February 1, 2005, the painstakingly restored Woolworth's façade was unveiled in a public ceremony, with completion of the restoration and the official opening of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum scheduled for July 25. You can be sure that this opening date was not arbitrarily chosen: City and museum officials will be marking the 45th anniversary of victorious afternoon when three black men seated at the Woolworth's lunch counter were served. Official desegregation was announced on the following day.
Clunie's North Star, winner of the Theodore Ward Prize for African American Playwriting in 1994, is an apt choice for celebrating both Black History Month and the anniversary of the Greensboro Four. Although the Greensboro sit-in is not re-enacted onstage, its repercussions loom large in the small North Carolina town where most of the action is set during the spring and summer of 1960. And in the climactic scene, when the play's key protagonists seat themselves at a segregated lunch counter in their own town, they sit on authentic Woolworth's stools on loan from the nascent museum less than a block away. Watching the lunch counter set as it emerges from the wings and into the spotlight at Triad Stage has the reliquary impact of seeing the Ark of the Covenant at the end of a religious procession. More than any other stage piece, North Star diligently chronicles the preparation that went into the sit-in demonstrations of 1960, giving due weight to the courage, zeal, and discipline of those who chose to participate.
In flashbacks, we watch as young Aurelia firms her resolve to join in the sit-ins with her best friend, Willie Joe, despite the strong opposition of her mom. Kate only relents in her opposition after shipping Relia -- as she is called -- off to her grandma's, only to discover that Relia has run away in the middle of a rainy night and embarked on an epic cross-county trek to return for the demonstration. Clunie's drama is undeniably powerful but its structure is severely flawed, posing unusual challenges for the actor and actress who play the young protagonists. The grown-up Aurelia, who narrates the story, has unaccountably devolved from a child willing to place herself in harm's way for a just cause into a parent who is even more protective -- and more easily alarmed -- than her own mother. So, as she narrates the tale of her own youthful courage, Aurelia pauses and frets over the devastating trauma inflicted upon her own daughter by a cab driver who hurled the "N" word at her before speeding away.
With few additional characters, Clunie deftly sketches the feel of the family and the town, and the play also has a mythic touch. Reverend Blake doesn't merely inspire with meekness, eloquence, and song, he also stutters occasionally to seal his Mosaic credentials. In a bravura performance, Junious Leak validates Clunie's florid conception of the character. Peterson Townsend, who worked so brilliantly with Calhoun as the condemned prisoner in Triad's production of A Lesson Before Dying, is superb here as college student Franklin, the freedom-now firebrand. Sounding a lot like Odetta in her heyday, Cassandra Williams does more singing than talking as Gramma, and Allie Woods makes a strong impression as Manson's friend Hawkins. The white folk in Clunie's drama, though briefly sketched, are admirably rounded: Ruthie Tutterow as Miss Cooper nicely modulates the librarian's propriety, vanity, and timidity; Carroll "Chip" Johnson is just what you'd expect as the luncheonette owner, but his portrayal of a racist farmer is memorable for its radical ambivalence.
Clunie's prime mission in North Star isn't to teach us a history lesson. Once we get past the play's flaws, we find the author at her best when she delves into the essence of her heroes' and heroines' courage, humanizing it thoroughly.