Review: Goodman Theatre’s The Nacirema Society Showcases Stellar Cast and Hysterical Writing

Gracie: “I just can’t get as excited as you do about it, Gram. At the end of the day, it’s just a big ol’ poofy white dress.”

Grace: (A beat) “A Nacirema white is no ordinary ball gown. There are only six of them in the world, designed and hand stitched by Jennifer Turner fifty years ago and lovingly altered by her to fit each new debutant in each subsequent year.” (Pearl Cleage, The Nacirema Society)

Pearl Cleage’s farcical play is about a lot of things—love, class, and family to name a few. At the root is also a story about tradition. For Gracie, this may just be a debutant ball. She will follow the rules, wear the dress, and choose the right escort, but that’s simply the way she was raised. As a burgeoning writer with dreams of fame and romance, Gracie has other priorities.

For her grandmother, this ball represents so much more. The event is a privilege—one to be cherished, and the opportunity to wear the white dress should be seen as nothing less than an honor. Grace will hold on to the prestige of this tradition as hard as she can, regardless of what might try to stand in her way.

(L-R) Sharriese Hamilton, Demetra Dee and E. Faye Butler. Image courrtesy Goodman Theatre.

Cleage’s clever script follows Grace Dunbar (E. Faye Butler) in 1964 Montgomery, Alabama. As head of the Nacirema Society, she will stop at nothing to ensure that her granddaughter, Gracie Dunbar (Demetra Dee) has the perfect coming-out. This is the society’s centennial year, and what better moment to showcase the family’s prestige? Particularly when living under the roof of scenic designer Arnel Sancianco’s gorgeous Southern mansion that consumes the Goodman stage, it’s hard to believe anything could go wrong. However, as with any farcical comedy, nothing ever quite goes according to plan. With the wrong people falling in love, family secrets bubbling to the surface, and a journalist not-so-subtly digging into the past, what will Grace have to do to ensure the ball is a success?

Skillfully directed by Lili-Anne Brown, the talented ensemble showcases extraordinary comedic timing. Butler soars at the helm with a Grace Dunbar who is dramatic but walks a delicate line—living in the over-the-top comedy but only as much as the script needs. She and Ora Jones as Catherine Adams Green—the energetically nervous best friend—make a dynamic pair, particularly as they navigate how to put a stop to the potential scandal threatening to ruin the Dunbar family while remaining socially respectable in the process.

Shariba Rivers as Jessie Roberts may have few lines, but her physical comedy is spot-on. As the Dunbar maid, she sees all, and the facial expressions so clearly share everything that she is feeling. I do not want to spoil anything, but when Roberts overhears Alpha Campbell Jackson’s (Tyla Abercrumbie) big family secret in this performance, the pure shock on her face elicited an uproar of laughter from the audience. As she calmly handed Jackson her coat, the horror radiated off her entire physicality, which only invited the laughter to grow in volume.

Tyla Abercrumbie and Feliciah Oduh. Image courtesy Goodman Theatre.

As much as the play lives in a comedic space, the dramatic moments under Brown’s care are just as potent. When Jackson arrives at the Dunbar home and shares her secret with Grace, the tension simply radiates. This secret could ruin the Dunbars’ reputation, and as much as Grace does not want to admit it, she is clearly a bit nervous. Abercrumbie and Butler hold nothing back in this moment as they stare each other down. As the two sit, waiting to see what the other will do, the silence is almost deafening. I certainly found myself on the edge of my seat—anxious to witness who would fold first.

A powerhouse ensemble and cleverly comedic script make The Nacirema Society a must see. The story’s twists and turns invite a roller coaster of emotions from start to finish. As I looked at the folks around me falling into either fits of laughter, it was clear I was not the only one charmed by Cleage’s writing. 

The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years continues thru October 22 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.Tickets are$25-$55 for performances Tuesday-Sunday. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission.

Lauren Katz is a Chicago-based director, educator, and arts administrator. She has been reviewing shows since moving to Chicago in 2016 and loves seeing the exciting range that the Chicago theater and arts scene has to offer.

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Lauren Katz
Lauren Katz