Life in the post-civil rights era explored in Bourbon

By Jerrin Zumberg

Enter May, Charlie, Rosa, and Tyrone. Four characters consumed by their immediate lives, but haunted by the past. Racial tensions and segregation remain, despite thirty years’ distance from the height of the Civil Rights movement. The foursome is the creation of novelist and playwright Pearl Cleage. Presented for the first time on a Chicago stage, Bourbon at the Border follows the emotional and often hysterical lives of two distinct, middle-aged, black couples living in Detroit and struggling to make ends meet. While May awaits the return of Charlie, who has supposedly recovered from a mental illness, we meet an animated Rosa and her sex-crazed boyfriend, Tyrone. Lighter, funnier, and shallower, the couple provides a contrast to the serious and thickly historical relationship of May and Charlie.

Upon Charlie’s return, the play works through his transition into everyday life, but not without suspicions that question his honesty and full recovery. Lost in everyday activities, tidbits of information begin to string their way into a mysterious bond between Charlie and May. A mystery that eventually leads to a climactic moment where murder, vengeance, a violated past, and painful memories pull the plot together.

The presentation, as dictated by director Andrea J. Dymond, was certainly nothing to be desired, nor was the set design, but content and humor were able to water down the poorer aspects of the production. There was something about peachy adobe-like walls, a bamboo door divider, and overall sunny Southwestern interior design theme that conflicted with the fact that this was supposed to be in Detroit.

E. Milton Wheeler’s delivery of Charlie was awful. He seemed not only insecure, but also frequently stumbled through lines. Rosa, May, and Tyrone on the other hand were well developed and pulled the play up out of the mud with some hysterical moments discussing Rosa’s 1-900 phone sex interview, not to mention the terrible knock-knock jokes.

The strength of Bourbon at the Border is its content. Cleage puts forward an interpretation of the origins of violence and confronting truths. Nobody wins in this play. Nothing is solved. May and Charlie’s struggle was indirectly Rosa and Tyrone’s and quite simply a human struggle. The anger, frustration, and tiredness of Charlie’s soul is left unhealed; what resonates in him is shrugged away by a complacent Rosa and Tyrone, but forever entrenched in May’s heart. Their fight for civil rights and the tragedy that met them in Mississippi scathed their entire lives and instilled an anger only reconcilable for Charlie with violence and for May with faith.

Cleage explains her play is about understanding anger and revenge, confronting horrors, and giving dues to those that struggled and fought in the past. Charlie moans about blood wasted and time wasted. Vengeance leads to vengeance, which always leads to suffering. But it is up to the viewer to decide who is to blame and if the cycle can be broken. It is up to the viewer to think about what inspires violence. Bourbon at the Border makes a strong case that violence is hardly the fault of the individual, rather a reflection of oppressive and violent externalities.

Cleage presents both the nonchalance of those that choose to ignore the truth and the pain of those that are brave enough to face it. Interestingly, facing the truth deepened the emotional capacity of May and Charlie and solidified their devotion, while ignorance left Rosa and Tyrone incapable of that same intensity.

Bourbon at the Border is a decent production, devoid of an overall solid presentation, but full of life and emotion, which is probably more fundamentally important in this case anyway. It is honest and deep and relevant and even worth navigating through a stuffy 50-and-up Chicago theater crowd. Bourbon at the Border is playing at the Victory Gardens Theatre in Lincoln Park through March 2. Visit for schedule and prices.