NRACT’s Eye-Opening Presentation of Pearl Cleage’s Bourbon at the Border Is an Education As Well As a Must-See Show!

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This review was prepared with assistance from Jennifer Greene. — KB

Imagine the scars that you would bear if you had been brutally abused — physically, mentally, and emotionally — by the police. Worse yet: imagine living 30 years with an open, festering, psychological wound pulsating just below the surface as you try so desperately to carry on. Even worse: imagine that, in addition, you harbor enormous guilt, because you feel responsible for a loved one’s similar suffering. Worst of all: imagine living with the abject fear that this “Nightmare Deferred,” might one day explode, as the squelched “dream” Langston Hughes’ 1951 poem, “A Dream Deferred,” threatened to explode.

Pearl Cleage’s Bourbon at the Border, now playing at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, paints a picture of an African-American man and his wife living under just such a cloud.

During the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, Charlie had organized a group of Howard University students to go down to Mississippi to help get African-Americans registered to vote; May (who is now his wife) had joined the group.

Like many of these “Freedom Riders,” Charlie and May met with horrific abuse at the hands of both white supremacists and police. It is now 1995, and we are flies-on-the-wall as this monster in the couple’s past rises once more. Playwright Pearl Cleage draws on actual incidents of that summer to create the couple’s backstory.

Tina Morris-Anderson, who plays May, wins the hearts of the audience immediately as May nervously prepares to “nonchalantly” welcome her husband home from his summer-long sojourn in a mental hospital. We find our affection for her growing as she interacts with her friend Rosa in the initial scene. And she garners great measures of empathy and sympathy as the story unfolds.

Dr. Joy L. Bryant is a scream as Rosa. Rosa is about to audition for a “phone sex job,” and she loves to try to tell jokes; she is the most well-adjusted of the four characters that we meet. Bryant plays the comedy of this character to the hilt; but, to her credit, she never takes this Rosa “over the top.”

Enter Charlie. He had insisted on taking the bus home after his discharge from the hospital. He feels as though he is now “normal” and able to cope, and he is eager to find a job ASAP. In Joseph Callender’s capable hands, Charlie projects a calm, controlled exterior while exhibiting ever-so-subtle symptoms of a storm brewing and seething just under the surface.

A master of stage comedy, Juan Isler delivers a crowdpleasing Tyrone (who elicits as many audience-laughs as Rosa). But Tyrone, a minority Vietnam veteran, is haunted by ghosts of his own; and Isler’s skill gives us the best of both the comedy and the depth. Worth noting: Tyrone always buys whiskey by the pint (rather than a larger size).

Cleage throws in the news of a series of mysterious murders that threaten the well-being of this quartet. And their situation is further complicated by employment-related issues.

This show is Natasha A. Jackson’s directorial debut, but she demonstrates the wealth of imagination and skill that she has developed in her 15 or so years of involvement in the local theater scene.

Scenic designer Lydia Granholm has supplied a very real 1990s Detroit apartment. A nice touch: a large picture on the upstage-center wall of four >Civil Rights Era icons.

Jemarl Kearney has ably costumed the show, Juan Isler has performed his usual wizardry with sound design, and Ryann Norris has made some rather bold lighting choices.

From the Department of Picky-Picky:

  1. Even though we understand the impulse to play situation-appropriate music during set changes, a few of the early scene breaks could have been much shorter (while still playing an adequate measure of the music).
  2. There are a few “dead spots” in the lighting plot that could be easily cleared up by fine-tuning the blocking.
  3. This coffee-drinker was a bit bothered by the amount of time that a coffee pot was allowed to sit on the counter unheated.

For a number of reasons, NRACT’s Jan. 24-Feb. 9 production of Bourbon at the Border should be on your theatrical to-do list. Good theatre always educates and uplifts while providing entertainment, and this team delivers.

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 21st Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Melissa Howsam: (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 26th Triangle Review review by Robert O’Connell, click

The North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre presents BOURBON AT THE BORDER at 8 p.m. Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, 3 p.m. Feb. 2, 8 p.m. Feb. 7 and 8, and 3 p.m. Feb. 9 at 7713-51 Lead Mine Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27615, in the Food Lion Shopping Center.

TICKETS: $22 ($20 students, teachers, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).

BOX OFFICE: 919-866-0228,, or

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REVIEWER: Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.