Sundown Town is, as TheatreSquared’s mission promises, challenging and heartfelt. The play, by local playwright Kevin Cohea, takes us to an Ozark town called Healing Springs that has a sign on its outskirts declaring that only whites are allowed there after dark. Cohea’s work is historically important, zeroing in on a part of our nation’s past, from the 1890’s to as late as 1968, when such towns actually existed across the country. Sundown Town succeeds in how honestly it deals with its subject: the hypocrisy of a society that claims moral high ground as a basis for persecution.
As the story unfolds, we see young Annie Hale falling for black carpenter Moses LaRue who has wandered into town looking for work. Of course, miscegenation isn’t looked upon too kindly by those in Healing Springs and so the ensuing violence of the second act comes as little surprise. When a not-so-clandestine kiss lands the couple in dire straits, the action picks up quickly but can feel a little forced as events start to domino. By the end, too little is seen of the relationship between Alex B. West’s character, Moses, and Halley Electra Mayo’s Annie to accept the depth of her decision to run away with him.
Unexpectedly, the focus seems to be, instead, Annie’s father, Dub Hale, who serves as an anchor for the impassioned towns folk around him. Bruch Reed, who plays Dub, gives a fantastic performance, but as narrator his character really revolves around the action of the others and ends up describing some of the tumult I would have liked to see for myself.
The only person of color in a play fixated on race, West stands out as a beautiful vocalist and offers up a perfectly restrained and calculated performance. It’s a terrific cast, in general: from a mentally challenged youth, played by the remarkable Quinn Gasaway, to a blind ex-Confederate called Scratch staged by Bill Rogers, Sundown Town brims with lively performances.
I would have liked it to be a little tighter and more focused on West’s character, though, who keeps slipping offstage as soon as I really get interested in him. But, in a large cast there are plenty of delights. Valarie Andrews delivers a hard-boiled Christian woman, capable of anything, and David Wright’s Reverend Lofton is hard pressed to bring his congregation of wayward souls back into the fold. Even the villains are fun, with town ne’er-do-well, Kris Pruett’s Mutt serving as henchman for the local entrepreneurial sophisticate, Bill Cheatham, played to a tee by John T. Smith.
The play is laced with spirituals and hymns, boasting a special collaboration with talented 3 Penny Acre and fiddle player Ann Mesrobian. While the subject is tough and it’s an emotional couple of hours, the music is lovely and often very fun. These musicians are stars in their own right and are beautifully showcased here.
The show offers up a little something for everyone. An exhibit showing in Nadine Baum Studios in conjunction with the play, No Disgrace: African Americans in the Arkansas Ozarks, grants especial clarity to the homegrown nature of Cohea’s work. The historical photographs document the actual lives to which the characters of the play are in reference (and reverence) and will please any local history buff.
You shouldn’t miss a great cast tackling a gritty play. The set is gorgeous and the music is transporting. What works about this play works admirably. This is the show I truly hope everyone in town sees this season. It’s certainly worth braving the winter weather to see.
Tobias writes theatre reviews for the Fayetteville Flyer. He is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts through the Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing and Translation and teaches at the University of Arkansas. He is also an associate company member with The Artist’s Laboratory Theatre. For more of Tobias’ contributions, see his author page.