The setting of “Perseverance,” onstage now at Portland Stage Company, is an old house in a rural Maine town. Its weathered wooden slats rise crookedly over a stone foundation.
Two schoolteachers live in this house and plan their futures outside in its dirt backyard – but they live 100 years apart.
Although they’re separated by a century, these two women live in times of strikingly similar concerns – racial inequity, challenges to women’s rights and voting rights, and a global pandemic – in Maine playwright Callie Kimball’s powerful latest drama.
Originally slated to open PSC’s 2020 season, as a commission for PSC and the Maine Suffrage Centennial Collaborative, “Perseverance” at long last makes its rich and vitally relevant premiere, under the agile direction of Jade King Carroll.
Perseverance, or Percy (Nedra Snipes), an African American woman and suffragist, lives in the house’s basement in 1920, when women have just been granted the vote. She’s sort-of-employed by the town’s insufferable mayor, “Judge” Elmer (Vin Knight), to teach its three Black students, and she often speaks to groups of white suffragists. Dawn (Catherine Buxton), who is white, is renovating the old house in 2020 with her husband Coop (Brendan D. Hickey), and she’s also running for public office on a school reform platform.
Both want to lift up their students: Dawn sees first-hand how rural poverty and addiction ravage her students’ dreams; Percy knows all too well how white supremacy has destroyed Black lives young and old. Both will give memorable speeches in their efforts for change.
The action of “Perseverance” cuts between Percy’s and Dawn’s stories, but characters from both time periods nearly always share space onstage. As the play opens, Percy delivers a subtle school lesson about water and human nature while Dawn Zooms with her own students across the stage. As Dawn interviews her brash new campaign manager Dilly (Sally Wood, with vigor and humor), Percy sits composing her next speech – on “True Womanhood” – for a white women’s suffragist group. As Percy parries with and resists the charms of Elmer’s new Black hired man Moss (William Oliver Watkins), Coop slips into the basement, then emerges with a wooden box filled with texts that Percy is about to write.
Keeping these characters onstage throughout each other’s scenes, via Kimball’s intricate plotting and Carroll’s elegant blocking, gives the show a powerful sense of simultaneity and interconnection. “Perseverance” makes visceral how the legacy of the past endures in any given present.
As the teachers, Snipes and Buxton present two very different women, with very different relationships to power. Dawn is well-meaning but limited by privilege, and Buxton does well in engaging now our sympathy, now our raised eyebrows. Her Dawn is bubbly, ingenious, and candidly wide-open in laughter and dismay alike.
In contrast, the virtuosic Snipes lets us see how deftly Percy code-switches through several distinct self-presentations. With Elmer, she’s carefully proper and restrained, though not above an arch reply or pained expression when he, for example, can’t believe her students wrote essays “by themselves.” With Watkins’ warm and savvy Moss, Percy is at first rigid and laconic, until his cooking and care finally reveal her generosity and irreverent laughter. And with her students, she’s mesmerizing – vivid, theatrical, funny, and empowering – as she concedes to them that yes, water can poison or drown us, but it can also slake our thirst.
It’s especially breathtaking to watch Percy all alone rehearsing and revising her speech. As she tries out words and rhetoric (exquisitely written by Kimball), we see and hear them flicker briefly into being before, with her imagined audience in mind, she alters or dismisses them. These sequences let us see how much of Percy’s monumental intelligence, eloquence, and sensitivity she’s obliged to put toward simply staying safe – even as she speaks among people who are supposedly liberal allies.
That division runs through “Perseverance” – the obliviousness and entitlement of white people, including those who consider themselves allies. Percy knows that the white women she’ll address don’t want to hear about solidarity with black women voters and a politics of raising everyone. Likewise, Dawn’s campaign, for all its liberal ideals, has gaping blind spots and makes deeply bad choices regarding the candidate’s own crucial speech.
As for Elmer (in Knight’s hands avuncular, comically pathetic, and terrifying), he thinks a lot of himself for giving Percy a basement to sleep in, even as he keeps inviting her to “sleep” in his house. As she keeps on declining, Elmer probably manages to believe it’s for her own good that he starts locking her in the basement each night. “Thank you, sir. That is a kindness,” Percy says stiffly, as she rejects yet another invitation. And a beat later, devastatingly: “I’m ready to be secured.”
In Kimball’s intelligent and sometimes very funny script, the plotlines of Percy and Dawn aren’t twinned in perfect parallel; the correspondences between 1920 and 2020 come as refreshingly slant rhymes, rather than nursery rhyme couplets. Dilly is a descendent of Elmer, but she’s not his spitting image; her own ways of exploitation take a subtler form. Many identities and issues are in play among these characters – race, gender, class, sexuality, a woman’s right to choose. Generally good people screw things up.
All of this makes “Perseverance” feel both richly woven and slightly tangled, often at loose ends. And it makes our history feel like what it is: messy, intricate, riddled with strings you can pull all the way back.
And fittingly, “Perseverance” doesn’t tie anything up with a neat bow. Rather, it raises truths and questions about our blind spots, hypocrisies, compromises, and mistakes – both those of the past and those of exactly right now.
“We have the right to vote,” says Percy in 1920, “but can we vote?” “Perseverance” reminds us that we have a lot more work to do, and asks us to stay the course.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Hard luck, experimental film, and ‘Dave’s Sauna’
• Mad Horse Theatre Company welcomes us back for a new season this weekend with “You Got Older,” a dark story about hard-luck Mae, who’s just been dumped, fired, and told her dad has cancer. Her coming-of-age story is said to involve sex, death, grit, and cowboys. Directed by Reba Askari, it runs Oct. 7-31 at 24 Mosher St., South Portland, in the inauguration of Mad Horse’s new “Pay What You Decide” ticketing policy. Masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required. FMI: madhorse.com.
• Opening next weekend is something that sounds like amazingly legit weird-Maine fun: “An Evening at Dave’s Sauna,” an original musical comedy, rated “N for Naughty,” set on one night in the 1980s in the legendary South Paris sauna. Writer/director/producer Jonathan Leavitt wrote a book based on real accounts from the sauna’s swinging heyday, and gave it a 15-track soundtrack that includes numbers such as “Cocaine’s a Wonderful Drug” and “I Swear He’s My Nephew.” A presentation of Cow Pasture Productions, the show runs Oct. 14-21 at the Gem Theater, in Bethel. Masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required. FMI (and to listen to the soundtrack): davessauna.com.
• And a very strange and exciting project website is up for one more week, via SPACE Gallery: “Ancestralidad y Trance” compiles more than 40 films and texts and makes them accessible via an interactive constellation of the Aztec solar calendar. Created by the Mexican film collective Colectivo los Ingrávidos, “Ancestralidad y Trance” offers a deeply experimental exploration of nature, shamanism, the Anthropocene, and more, as well as the concept of filmmaking as “a form of ritual that opens spaces of acute awareness and deep listening.” Online through Oct. 13 at https://ancestralidadytrance.space/.
— Megan Grumbling