Play explores racial attitudes, family, in 1960s Mississippi

Falashay Pearson plays the mysterious visitor Penny in “Split in Three” at Aurora Theatre. PHOTO CREDIT: Daniel Parvis

Falashay Pearson plays the mysterious visitor Penny in “Split in Three” at Aurora Theatre. PHOTO CREDIT: Daniel Parvis

Something is about to explode in the Mississippi Delta. Fifteen years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of school desegregation in Brown v. Board, a small Mississippi town is being forced to integrate, and the whole world is watching.

That’s the background of Daryl Lisa Fazio’s comedic drama “Split in Three,” to run May 4-28 at Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville.

Sisters Nola and Nell, who have lived in poverty in the backwoods of Yazoo their whole lives, are divided. Nola believes it is time for change, and Nell believes that if her pastor says black people are bad, then it must be true. They are both in for a surprise when a woman claiming to be their half-sister shows up and defies all of their expectations.

Fazio, who grew up in Starkville, Miss., started writing “Split in Three” 15 years ago as a screenplay. She set out to write a script about racism from the perspective of Midwestern women visiting the South during the 1960s. Fazio, who studied at Northwestern University and lived in Chicago many years, said she wanted to explore from a woman’s perspective why people fear each other. Over time, the screenplay morphed into a stage play set during the civil rights movement in which “women are positioned as more than just wives.” “Split in Three” premiered at Florida Repertory Theatre in 2015 under the direction of Aurora’s associate artistic director Justin Anderson, who helms this production.

“I was very inspired by this book called “Yazoo” by Willy Morris, which offers a journalist’s perspective on school desegregation in Yazoo City, Mississippi in the early 60s,” Fazio said. “I said, let me take that environment and have these strong, complicated, layered women who represent different parts of the South, and then throw in race and religion.”

Rhyn McLemore Saver, who plays Nell, grew up on Jekyll Island and attended private schools until sixth grade, when she transferred to public school. She said that was the first time she saw black people in her classes.

“What’s cool about the play is that everyone is so complicated,” Saver said. “Nothing is black and white. There are so many insecurities at play, but what’s driving all of it is love. I am really excited for audiences to see this show, because there are a lot of hard things to witness, but they need to be witnessed.”

The Brooklyn-based actress said that while growing up in the Bible Belt she knew many people like Nell who blindly followed their religion. She describes Nell as sweet, innocent and easily swayed.

“There’s this moment when her and Nola get into a fight about saying the N-word, and she says, ‘well my preacher says it, so it’s okay,’ ” Saver said. “But it’s cool to later see this character say ‘wow, I was wrong,’ and I think that’s a beautiful thing for a lot of people in this world to learn.”

Falashay Pearson portrays the woman claiming to be Nell and Nola’s long-lost sister, Penny, in the play. Penny is an academic from Chicago who discovers in her mother’s papers a photo of a man she believes to be the father she never knew. When she journeys to Mississippi, she hopes to find her family but discovers much more. In Chicago, the racism is under the surface, but in the Deep South it is very much above water.

“That feeling that Penny has the first time she is called the “N-word,” and had never been called that to her face — it breaks her,” Pearson said. “That resonated so much with me, because I remember the first time the N-word was said to me to describe me. I was shocked.”

Snellville, Ga., native Courtney Patterson, who plays Nola, recalls the first time she recognized race was a divisive issue. She recounted an incident in the fifth grade when some students wrote the N-word in another student’s yearbook. The teacher sent the black student out of the room and explained to the white students that using racial slurs was unacceptable. Patterson said she knew it was wrong at the time but did not know how to say anything — something her character struggles with throughout the play.

Patterson said, “She feels powerless as a woman and a poor person, but she has to learn that you don’t have to make change globally. You can make change locally, and that’s enough.”

Fazio adds, “I’m not trying to make some grand statement about racism, the government or the world. I’m trying to explore race on a very human, molecular level of identity. When I was growing up there were still separate proms.” In writing this play, “I was trying to make sense of all of the things I experienced.”

"Split in Three" by Daryl Lisa Fazio. May 4-28. $20-$55. Aurora Theatre, 128 East Pike S., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222,