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Donei Hall, Sequoia Forrest, and Miller Lucky, Jr. in North Star
(Photo © G. Allen Aycock)
Driving into Greensboro to see a fresh production of Gloria Bond Clunie's North Star, I was irresistibly drawn past the Triad Stage storefront where the performance would soon begin. Proceeding to the intersection of South Elm Street and February One Place, I turned right and found a parking spot. Yes, I felt a certain pleasure parking there, but it wasn't just because the date aligned with the street name. No: It was 45 years to the day since four students from nearby North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College had plunked themselves down at a Woolworth's lunch counter here and ordered coffee. Because they were black, service was refused. With quiet dignity, the "Greensboro Four" remained in their seats for a full half-hour until closing time came at 5pm. That simple demonstration of solidarity in 1960 turned the Woolworth's on South Elm into Ground Zero for a wave of demonstrations that swept the South.

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.

The cast of North Star
(Photo © G. Allen Aycock)
Under Kaia Calhoun's bold direction, Donei Hall doesn't mute Aurelia's wailings even if they are unsettling. Nor does Calhoun choose the easy way out and use grown actors to portray Relia and Willie Joe. For these reasons, it takes a while for North Star to settle into a groove. Hall eventually relaxes her unnaturally swift delivery, becoming very winsome. And, overall, Sequoia Forrest as Relia and Ronald V. Long, Jr., as Willie Joe are quite remarkable. Kelly Taffe doesn't help matters as Relia's mom, making Kate cold and unfeeling rather than committed, emotional, and protective. But Miller Lucky, Jr., as Manson plays Relia's dad as a big lovable bear, managing to impart familial warmth to everyone around him. He teaches Relia about the North Star, welcomes Willie Joe into his home, alternately soothes and indulges Kate's fears, and organizes the town's sit-in.

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.

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