Vivien Leigh’s already in town, accompanied by “Scarlett O’Hara’s” real-life companion, Laurence Olivier. A fancy dress-up ball looms in a few hours, followed by the glitzy “Gone With the Wind” movie premiere. There’s even a hint of Clark Gable in the air.
Yet none of that has Margaret Mitchell (Mary Saville) on the edge of her seat like what’s about to happen in “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” a one-act play that debuts this weekend as the latest entry in the Atlanta History Center’s innovative “Meet the Past” initiative.
Jessie (Cynthia Barker), Mitchell’s African-American maid/trusted confidante, has nearly finished reading “Gone With the Wind” for the first time. And she’s got some, uh, constructive feedback for the woman she calls “Miss Peggy.”
“The writing is lovely and descriptive,” Jessie repeats carefully and with obvious sincerity as she pours a cup of tea laced with “shine” (moonshine whiskey), ostensibly to soothe her boss’s nagging cough. But it may also help her review go down better. “Certain parts, well … certain parts are a bit confusing to me.”
For audience members, the next 40 minutes or so are the theatrical version of tea-with-shine. Jessie, Mitchell and the author’s husband John Marsh (Tim Batten) use “Gone With the Wind” as the vehicle for a frank conversation about art as truth — but whose truth? — laced with dollops of gossip and good humor.
“What if the masks and gloves came off,” the history center’s director of museum theater Addae Moon said he asked himself when he set out to write “Tomorrow,” “and these women could sit here and have an honest, sincere discussion about the book and race?” (Jessie is based on a real person in Mitchell’s life.)
Put it another way: How better to invite audience members to see “Gone With the Wind” in a new light than by essentially inviting them into Mitchell’s (onstage) apartment?
Or for that matter, how better to translate the experience of being in a city under siege than by having history center visitors play roles in an interactive play about the 1906 Atlanta race riot? Or to communicate what life was really like in a circa-1920s Buckhead mansion than by having Swan House’s “butler” greet visitors at the door and answer their questions?
All this and more has taken place under the aegis of Meet the Past, a history center initiative that employs museum theater to enhance many of its exhibitions and educational experiences. Museum theater can involve everything from musical and dramatic presentations, like “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” to storytellers and living history interpreters (enter Mr. Carter, the Swan House butler), even puppetry and mime.
Whatever the medium, the message can be powerful in ways even the most jaw-dropping display case diorama can’t, the history center’s president suggested.
Museum theater can “connect the visitor through the actor to the museum object or historical persona in a way that a traditional docent or text panel cannot,” said Sheffield Hale.
In Jessie, “Tomorrow Is Another Day” presents an intelligent, complex African-American woman of the pre-civil rights era South — so seamlessly integrated into Marsh and Mitchell’s lives that she’s been with them every step of the way in “Gone With the Wind’s” life span, yet always aware she’s an employee and a minority in a segregated city. (“Tomorrow” features Mitchell’s moving memory of visiting her ill maid in a public hospital charity ward and being horrified by the substandard conditions.)
That’s likely why Jessie’s confusion and pain over the book’s depiction of emancipated slaves primarily as lazy or almost illogically loyal to staying on at Tara resonate so strongly with the people onstage and in the audience.
“The book is filled with dream Negroes,” Jessie tells Mitchell, meaning they lack aspirations or inner lives. “These Negroes have never existed, but it’s the representation of them that makes it harder for real Negroes.”
Moon came to the history center in 2011 as its first playwright-in-residence. Two years later, he was hired for the newly created director of museum theater position, where he writes, directs and oversees production of virtually everything Meet the Past-related. The Jacksonville, Fla., native hadn’t even read “Gone With the Wind” when he sat in on a book group discussion involving Atlanta History Center volunteers.
“The first thing that blew my mind is that it is really a well-written book,” said Moon, 43, who’s now read it three times. “It was some of the ideas that disturbed me. The whole idea of ‘dream Negroes’ or any kind of mythological structure created about any group of people is insane and can be damaging. If nothing else, Jessie is giving Peggy an alternate truth that the book doesn’t even explore.”
There’ll be a post-performance talkback session to discuss the themes and ideas the play illuminates. It only runs this weekend, but take heart. Tomorrow is always another day where Meet the Past is concerned. Two other museum theater productions are upcoming at the history center, and costumed interpreters are present daily at its historic houses (see box).