WILMINGTON –– Though local director Ray Kennedy wasn’t leading big song and dance numbers through Covid, he didn’t give up his love for live theater completely. While hunkered down in Florida through the pandemic, Kennedy decided to pick up the pen and turn his passion from stage to page.
Fast forward 18 months later, he debuted his first play, “Thursday Night Bridge Circle,” to a sold-out crowd on Thursday evening at downtown’s Front Street Theater (née City Stage). The show is being produced by Opera House Theater Company, for which Kennedy has directed numerous productions over three decades.
“The story’s been in my head for 25 years now,” he told Port City Daily by phone Thursday. “And I realize in writing this, I’m a white male and very privileged — the most privileged — but I had to get these characters out.”
The show is based on Kennedy’s upbringing in a small Southern town and takes place a few years ahead of the time schools were integrating in North Carolina: August 1970. His characters are a composite of people he has admired, others who were integral to challenging social mores of the time, and some who were going along with the same ol’ pack because they didn’t know any other way.
“One of the characters is my grandmother,” Kennedy said.
She will be played by Missy McArdle.
“Grandmother Kennedy was a suffragist — totally different from other women in my family that I grew up with,” the playwright said. “She just marched to the beat of a different drummer, so my sister and I had a very liberal upbringing. We heard the speech about never, ever using the ‘N’ word when I was 7 years old and my sister was 5.”
Kennedy’s show takes place primarily in a living room — created by his close pal and New York interior designer Marshall Watson — where seven women congregate for Bridge. While playing cards, they discuss changes coming to their hometown of La Grange, North Carolina — primarily, the new integrated school system. In the play, the town still is very much segregated with a Black grocery store and a white grocery store, a Black drug store and a white drug store, and so forth.
Joining the Bridge club is New York City transplant Carmela (Samantha Mifsud). “She’s an exotic, liberal, Catholic woman,” Kennedy described, who made her way down South after marrying the brother of one of the club’s members. Carmela starts to question the ways of life below the Mason Dixon and forces the women to have conversations they may not otherwise be willing to engage in.
“She asks them: ‘Why is there a Black post office and a white post office?’” Kennedy explained. “One lady responds, ‘Well, it’s just always been that way.’ And she says, ‘Are you afraid that mail’s gonna intermingle?’”
During Wednesday evening’s soft run-through, Kennedy said the scene played well, with responsive laughter from the audience. “Thursday Night Bridge Club” is billed as a Southern comedy, but it also works in drama and tears, as it mines heavy conversations surrounding racial divide.
“After the show Wednesday, everyone was saying, ‘This is just so timely,’” Kennedy said.
“It’s sad,” he added. “Have we not learned a lesson yet?”
Kennedy wrote the play in March 2020, before last summer’s Black Lives Matter marches, before George Floyd’s murder. He said it wasn’t a response to the resurgence of civil rights protests — rather, a story of his past and people reacting to changes taking place in the ‘70s.
“I could just hear these women’s voices in my head,” he admitted. Once he put pen to paper, he said, “they just came pouring out.”
When writing Bootsie, he thought back to a friend in Clinton, North Carolina, who gave him permission to use all the tales he has heard throughout their 30-year friendship.
Bootsie is the comic relief of the show, played by Heather Setzler. The actress calls her character a “raconteur,” always armed with quips and stories.
“She always makes a tough situation better with laughs — and probably Chablis,” Setzler said.
Many of Kennedy’s characters may strike a chord with audiences who have been inundated with mannerisms and speech entrenched in Southern culture. Setzler admitted to knowing many women like these during her own upbringing.
“Colloquialism was part of everyday conversation for me when I was a kid in South Carolina,” she said. “But the struggles these women face and the heart they have to face them will resonate with anyone.”
Though strapped to levity and laughter, the show can be weighty, especially felt at the end of Act 1, Kennedy said. Pushback comes when the ladies ask one of their Black housekeepers, Margaret (Natasha Lee), how she feels about life in the small town.
“These women are so shocked to hear what Margaret has been thinking all this time,” Kennedy said, “because she’s been quiet, and they just thought everything was hunky dory.”
Kennedy fleshed out Margaret, one of the lead characters, in honor of his own childhood nanny. “When I wrote it, I cried all night because my Margaret, to this day — she died from Alzheimer’s — I just don’t know how she felt,” he said. “Looking back, I didn’t realize how crazy this world was.”
When Kennedy’s first draft of “Thursday Night Bridge Club” was complete, he said he showed a copy to Beth Crookham — a friend who has worked in film for more than two decades (they are already looking at turning the play into an eight-part series and have interest from producers in L.A.). Kennedy has directed Crookham on stage, last in “The Sound of Music” in March 2020. He said she immediately made notes on his script and after page three signed on as executive producer.
“This play reminds us that navigating life is never simple and that it is important to re-examine our perceptions and beliefs,” Crookham said. “The best of intentions may be laden with unintentional malice, and it is never too late to say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Crookham also acts in the play, taking on the role of Cluster, an amalgamation of three of Kennedy’s friends. He calls Cluster the most sensitive of the bunch. Crookham pointed to her character’s earnestness as most impressive, especially when she challenges outdated beliefs.
“She is so genuine,” Crookham said, “[and] delightfully mercurial, which is fun to play, but she also has the confidence to stand up for what she believes is right, even in the face of pressure from those she loves the most.”
“She basically says, ‘Let’s band together and try to talk to our mother’s generation, and our grandmother’s generation, for them to rethink what they have always thought was normal,” Kennedy added.
Act 2 brings with it the show’s climax and drops “big truth bombs,” according to Setzler. Twists and turns that Kennedy doesn’t want to reveal guide the protagonist Louise, played by Michelle Braxton, to her moment.
“I love Louise’s effervescence and resilience,” Braxton said. “This piece of art that Ray has created and so graciously shared with us is very inspiring. It allows you to explore your heart in a safe environment without judgement or condemnation.”
Kennedy has been writing and editing the script with his director, Sarah Rodgers, and plans to continue doing so even between performances, in order to hone in on what works and what doesn’t in its first run. The shows will run July 9-10 and 15-17 at 7 p.m., and on Sundays, July 11 and 18, at 3 p.m. (tickets are $30).
“Thursday Night Bridge Circle” also stars Jenny McKinnon Wright, Stoney B. Mootoo, Linda Carlisle Markas, Suellen Yates, and Mary Mattison Vallery. The show’s tech crew includes stage manager Aurora Flores, technical director Terry Collins, lighting design by Beau Mumford, costumes by Jayme Bednarczyk, and hair and makeup by Kendall Fuqua and Sarah Holcombe. Bridge choreographer is Jane Davis.
“The South is a wonderful but strange land,” Kennedy said, “and how we treat others is something I hope people think about when they leave this show.”
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