Longtime playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre James Still details the day Martin Luther King Jr. died from the perspective of an African-American family in the world premiere of April 4, 1968: Before We Forgot How to Dream. Still gleaned first-person stories from over 50 Indianapolis residents over five years, and the characters in the play represent an amalgamation of the experiences he collected.
The play is set in the home of the African-American, working-class couple John Henry (James T. Alfred) and Addie (Tracy N. Bonner) and their two daughters, Geneva (Christina D. Harper) and Johnna Rose, aka “Baby Sister” (Nia Simmons). Sixteen-year-old Geneva is passionate about Bobby Kennedy’s campaign for president. Her father, a devout nonvoter, refuses to let her participate. Finally, her mother offers to go with her, and while they are at the rally, Kennedy preempts his planned speech with heart-felt words on MLK’s death. Before leaving, Geneva and her mother pick up an abandoned white college student (Nick Vidal), whom they take home with them.
While the show is primarily an examination of race and identity, director Courtney Sale and the cast do not see the characters as mere mouthpieces. The deep love John Henry and Addie share is dexterously translated by Alfred and Bonner in their comfort with each other. Their intimacy and familiarity is demonstrated through touch and facial expressions, expertly conveying the bond between the two. Alfred also imbues his character with the volatile nature of an artist, and Bonner consistently keeps her character strong as his more practical complement. Ultimately, they create the most realistic and multilayered characters and anchor the dabs of humor that add levity to the show.
Harper, as Geneva, often goes over-the-top during her tirades like a teenage drama queen. She stomps and screams enthusiastically with the know-it-all attitude endemic to the age. Vidal earnestly captures the over-eager protester, Nick, a civil rights supporter who is well-meaning but inherently cannot relate to the personal struggle of African-Americans. However, he and Harper rely too much on volume to validate their opinions. Simpson makes her auxiliary character Miss Davine congenial yet sassy, but she capably exhibits Davine’s steadfast integrity in the end. In contrast, Simmons’s character (Baby Sister) doesn’t have much to do, and her role feels like a non sequitur, little more than that of an annoying and distracting sibling.
Overhead, composer Michael Keck provides the soundtrack for the events as a deejay at TLC. Scenic designer Russell Metheny provided a minimalist and lovely backdrop of flat, wooden stick houses to cradle the action on stage.
The show gets repetitive, which makes it longer than it needs to be. However, with a tighter script, it could be a much more engaging production and would be a wonderful introduction to students who need to ground the concept of this piece of history.