Deep in the Jim Crow south, in the early part of the 20th Century, the notorious Mississippi state penitentiary known as Parchman Farm gave birth to a chain gang song called “Berta, Berta.” Its powerful lyrics — an admonition from a prisoner to the love he left behind to “marry no farming man” — inspired playwright Angelica Chéri to write the two-character, Mississippi-set play of the same name, which is being presented by The Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken, through Oct. 16.
“Berta, Berta” kicks off the first season at MST under new artistic director Kevin R. Free, who also directed. The 80-minute drama takes place in the course of one night in 1920 when Leroy (played by LeRoy S. Graham III) shows up at the farmhouse of his former lover Berta (Ashleigh Awusie). Over the course of several hours, their relationship morphs from anger and resentment to passionate love, and the mood shifts from deep despair to ecstatic hope. Along the way, there is violence, sex, moonshine, attempted suicide, collard greens and even a bit of magic.
While Leroy and Berta remain deeply in love, these star-crossed lovers have been separated for years by fate, circumstance and social injustice, all strong themes of the play. As the action begins, Berta is futilely trying to remove bloodstains from Leroy’s shirt. Through their conversation, we learn that he’s just killed a man in a fit of rage, his spirit coarsened and his humanity crushed by an 18-month stint at Parchman Farm, where a racist white sheriff had him incarcerated on a whim.
Berta, we learn, has had her own troubles. When Leroy disappeared from her life, she married a man who owned a farm, offering both a livelihood and the promise of a family. But Berta’s pregnancy ended with a stillborn birth and her husband died, apparently of grief, leaving her alone to work the farm by herself.
Graham and Awusie bring their roles to life with stark realism and heartfelt passion; there is never a moment when you don’t believe them. Awusie, a small woman in stature compared to the tall, powerfully muscled Graham, feigns coyness early on, but reveals a fiery determination later. Graham’s Leroy finds himself wracked with grief and regret for his actions, but is also filled with anger at an America that treats all black men like property.
Chéri takes a bit of poetic license in having Leroy’s visit coincide with the return of the 17-year cicada. Both Leroy and Berta believe the cicadas wield powerful juju: Berta is convinced they can bring her stillborn baby back to life, while Leroy thinks they helped him escape pursuit and will protect him from arrest until daylight.
Reality triumphs in the end, bringing the evening to a sad but inevitable conclusion.
Mile Square Theatre excels at these plays with one set and a small cast; the set direction utilizes the theater’s small stage to maximum effect. Even the lighting direction shines; Berta’s ramshackle farmhouse is illuminated by candles that flicker, glow brightly or go dark to punctuate the action. Free’s direction is taut and precise but never overdramatic; although nothing really “happens” in the play except for two people talking, there is never a slack moment.
Enjoy the performances even as you are disgusted by reminders of the racism and injustice of the Jim Crow era. Berta and Leroy’s tale is both singular and all too typical of the times.
We change the future by remembering the past. “Berta Berta” represents a step in that process.
“Berta, Berta” runs Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., through Oct. 16, at the Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken. Visit milesquaretheatre.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.