It’s the middle of the 20th century and Miss Cornelia Scott of Louisiana is waiting for an important phone call. Too proud to run in an election for the presidency of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, she will only accept the position of authority if it is offered unanimously.
A wealthy Mississippi spinster in her 50s or 60s, Cornelia is used to exerting power and influence and enjoys a larger-than-life existence. As she waits on tenderhooks for acclamation of this long-standing desire, Cornelia is joined by Miss Grace Lancaster, a secretary of whom she shares a co-dependent relationship.
Thus, begins Something Unspoken, one of Tennessee Williams lesser-known plays that premiered in 1958. Although only a short one-act, it explores lesbian passion with the playwright’s daring honesty and raw psychological insight.
Trevor Schmidt, artistic director of Northern Light Theatre, who in his four-part season of plays showcasing mature women, streams this masterpiece from April 16 to 18 and April 22 to 25.
In past interpretations across North America, two white women have traditionally been cast. However, Schmidt was searching for a play that would challenge Patricia Darbasie, one of Edmonton’s most sought-after black actors.
The play is set in the 50s during the Jim Crow-era at a time when the civil rights movement was beginning to receive a push, said Schmidt. By casting two actors of different races, Schmidt has added a completely new layer of intrigue.
“The characters are defined by gender, sex, class system, and by casting a black actor there is a whole new set of repercussions because of the time and era where it was set,” Schmidt said.
“It sets up different motivations. It makes the play richer and the stakes are higher. It’s a deceptively simple play. There’s not a lot of intricate plot. And you need to fill in the silences. But the best plays always leave room for me to fill in things and allow me to develop my artistic vision.”
Williams wrote Cornelia’s role as that of a mentally fragile southern belle similar to Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire.
“They are histrionic, temperamental, theatrical and deeply emotional. But kind of a bit unhinged and very self-absorbed.”
Schmidt’s choice for this aging belle is Davina Stewart, a woman he describes as conveying a patrician quality.
“People see her as a person of class and breeding. She’s graceful and elegant on stage. Davina has often played supporting roles where she is quiet and meek and I feel this is an opportunity for her to play to wider extremes.”
Darbasie, on the other hand, is accustomed to playing powerful women who have a commanding stage presence. Taking on the role of Grace, a more deferential, submissive woman, proved to be a challenging task.
“During rehearsal, she mentioned she was struggling – that it was not her natural instinct. We had to find similarities and differences in both. It would have been easy to put a spin on the text that would give Grace the upper hand, but we made a conscious effort to avoid doing that.”
Much of the script’s tension is created due to a power imbalance between employer and employee.
“Grace is the employee. She is black and poor. She is unsure of her footing. If she stands up for herself, she could lose all her privilege. Cordelia could at any moment terminate her as an employee. If Grace were white and lost a job, it would be difficult, but she could find another one. As a woman of colour, she would be bereft of a lifestyle that she’s grown accustomed to.”
Despite the black and white dynamics and tensions at play, Schmidt does not call this production a serious indictment of race relations.
“It’s a look at the greyness of race relations. It’s a historical look at a certain time, at a certain location and there are parallels today. It’s a situation we can understand, but will never see it as Americans do.”
Schmidt goes on to say during rehearsals, the script generated some incredibly enlightening, robust and fairly generous discussions about race relations.
“I’m grateful to have had these discussions of race, colour and societal attributes. They were enlightening and empowering.”
In today’s current climate, race is a highly charged issue. Many people feel very emotional about it so much so they have become cautious about starting a conversation in case the emotional aspect takes over the tone. Schmidt, on the other hand, encourages people to check out this psychological dance. A salon talkback will be offered after productions through Zoom.
Tickets for the 45-minute performance are $30. Visit www.northernlighttheatre.com to purchase tickets.