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Dramatizing Pauli Murray's courage in To Buy the Sun

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Last week's Solo Takes On festival of solo performances at UNC Chapel Hill reminds us there are several reasons most one-person shows are an hour long or less. One involves the simple logistics of work on stage: All else being equal, the fewer people there are in a work, the more pages of dialogue, blocking and cues there are for each to memorize and master.

In retrospect, that may well be the main reason director Kathryn Hunter-Williams insisted early on that Lynden Harris write her new stage biography of human rights activist Pauli Murray, To Buy the Sun: The Challenge of Pauli Murray, for two actors and not one.

Good idea: Given its opening-night running time of two hours and 45 minutes last Friday at Hayti Heritage Center, it's difficult to imagine just how theatrically viable a solo performance of such a work would have been.

Even as a vehicle for two, Harris' script presses up against the physical boundaries of what two artists can reasonably expect to achieve in an evening's time on stage, and an audience's forbearance as well. In the hands of a lesser wordsmith, the concept wouldn't have a prayer.

To be clear, if any subject ever merited the extra mile a cast, creative team or audience was asked to put into a show, human rights activist Pauli Murray is the one. In retrospect, her struggles were critical to achievements we as a people have made in the areas of race and gender in the last century. The battles she did not win are poignantly indicative of the great work that followed, as well as the work that remains to be done. When all cultural memory of a person of such caliber is endangered, let us recognize that heroic, even desperate measures are fully called for.

We see both on stage in this production, which moves to The ArtsCenter in Carrboro this weekend before moving on to briefer engagements at regional venues through March. While UNC undergraduate Brie Nash plays Murray throughout the work, narrating her life's endeavors—and, seemingly, the majority of Harris' lines—directly to the audience, regional actor Chaunesti Webb Lyon may actually have the harder role. She plays dozens of other characters, famous and obscure, that Murray encounters throughout her life. Given the dispatch with which Harris conveys us through Murray's life, Webb's unenviable task involves an almost endless series of quick changes, from doting and no-nonsense relatives to historical figures, including death row inmate Odell Waller, Thurgood Marshall and Eleanor Roosevelt, through a cavalcade of secretaries, functionaries and demagogues, with compatriots and rare loves along the way. Clearly this show could—and likely should—have been written for an ensemble much larger than two.

As a result, theatrical disbelief doesn't just need to be suspended for this production—it should take the whole night off. Unfortunately, this holds true for Nash's work as well. She's nothing if not a young actress from the start of the play, when she depicts Murray at age 67, on the eve of celebrating her first communion as the Episcopal Church's first female African-American priest. The age of Nash's character never appreciably changes—forward or backward—while navigating Murray's seven decades. When Nash throws away an opening joke about just winging the oratory at the upcoming communion ceremony, it presages limitations in this young actor's timing and emotional range.

Harris' script effectively gets at the turmoil Murray felt living as what we'd today call a transgender person—she self-identified as male, and unsuccessfully engaged in early forms of hormone therapy in her 20s and 30s—at a time when our culture had far fewer insights into this state of being. But lackluster lead acting adds to the sense that this fast-forward travelogue through Murray's life skims a vast surface effectively enough, but rarely digs far into it.

Update (Feb. 3, 2011): Show dates have been changed from the dates that appeared in the print version of this story.

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