During the pandemic downtime of 2020, Florida Studio Theatre commissioned Bruce Graham to write a play as part of its Playwrights Project. “Visit Joe Whitefeather (and bring the family!)” is what he wrote — a Mel Brooksean comedy of loveable con artists. It’s just premiered at FST.
Graham’s play unfolds with a frame story. In the present, Lucy (Kim Crow) is a pot-smoking, aging hippie who owns a New Age gift shop called Tranquility. When a young documentary filmmaker named Marcus (London Carlisle) aims his camera and asks questions, Lucy relates her improbable tale.
Flashback to 1974. Lucy (Malka Wallick) is a California girl and a UC Berkeley graduate. For a change of scenery, she takes the bus to a Podunk town in Pennsylvania. Bad choice. The town is dying like an unwatered ficus in a dark corner of the garage.
Walt Dorfman (Kraig Swartz) is the town's mayor. He finds out that Joe Whitefeather — the all-American (and Native American) Olympic athlete and war hero — has recently died. That gives him a crazy idea.
Obtain the man’s body. Change the town’s name to “Joe Whitefeather.” Then build a memorial to the man. Tourists will flock to see it. Sports fans, bleeding-heart liberals and red-blooded American patriots. If you build it, they will come! What could possibly go wrong?
Walt ropes Lucy into his wacky scheme. He offers her a commission to design Whitefeather’s memorial. Lucy reluctantly agrees after being subjected to abundant promises, pleading and flattery.
Next Walt hoodwinks the voters and plays a fiscal game of three-card Monte with the city’s funds. The town gets renamed. Whitefeather’s monument is approved and built. The mayor’s ready to tell the world. Until Cierra (Anat Cogan) shows up and ruins the ride.
Cierra announces that she’s “a proud member of the Chicktaw nation” (presumably a nod to the real-life Chickasaw nation) and Joe Whitefeather’s daughter. Her first demand: Kill the project, or face legal hellfire. Her workaround: Fly in a Chicktaw holy man to bless the site. The town will pay for his round-trip plane ticket. To keep it quiet, the town must also pay to build a new school on the Chicktaw reservations. That adds up to $10,000. In cash, of course.
This unfolds against the backdrop of the Watergate hearings and Nixon’s impending resignation. His dirty deeds came to light. Will the town’s co-conspirators suffer the same fate? If you want to know, see the play.
It’s something to see. Isabel A. & Moriah Curley-Clay’s set design for Lucy’s New Age gift shop has the perfect woo-woo, crunchy granola vibe. (You can almost smell the patchouli.) Mari Taylor Floyd’s period costumes are equally apt. Her young Lucy’s kicky boots and flared pants remind me of all the coeds at UVA. Floyd nailed it.
Kate Alexander’s direction is snappy and cinematic. In her hands, the play moves — and keeps moving. You can tell it wants to be a movie.
In the acting department, Crow is a cynical delight as the 70-something Lucy, (who’s not necessarily stoned but beautiful). Wallick is a ball of fire and feminist idealism as Lucy’s younger self. The characters deftly mirror each other. (They clearly worked hard synchronizing attitude and body language.)
Swartz delivers a John Ritter-esque portrayal of Walt. His character’s a pent-up bundle of raw nerves. Walt’s dishonest scheme won’t put a penny in his pocket — he honestly just wants to save the town. Britt Michael Gordon does an understated turn as Bob — Lucy’s potential love interest and the town’s pacifistic good cop. (Like Barney Fife, he carries no gun.)
Carlisle’s documentary filmmaker is a stand-in for the audience. He just can’t believe the tall tale Lucy is telling him. Cogan’s Cierra walks the tricky tightrope of selling you on a Native American character without falling into ethnic stereotype. Ellie Mooney steals the show as Abigail, the town librarian with a split personality. By day, she’s chirpy and perky, and goes around singing Julie Andrews tunes. (Quietly, so readers won’t be disturbed.) By night, she’s a chain-smoking social critic with a trash-talking spiel to rival Lenny Bruce.
You can't help but like these people. They break laws, violate ethics and trash morality. But they’re not villains. They’re sympathetic characters — who do all the wrong things for all the right reasons. But there’s no deal with devil, just lots of baby steps to the dark side. Oddly, that’s somehow more disturbing.
“Visit Joe Whitefeather” doesn’t dismiss America’s bloody legacy of genocide, cultural appropriation and forced assimilation when it comes to Native Americans. It’s the dead elephant in the room — but the characters have other things on their minds.
Graham based his play on a true story. “Joe Whitefeather” is a stand-in for Jim Thorpe — a real-world Native-American athlete and Olympic gold medalist. A real-world Pennsylvania town did take his name and build a tourist-trap memorial. So what?
To quote Ann Beattie, “It really happened” means nothing unless your fictionalized version is a good story. This is.
Graham’s a good storyteller and he’s written very funny play. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius, it’s not. The characters are broad and cartoonlike. The storyline feels a tad contrived at times. Like I said, it’s a Mel Brooksean comedy. What else did you expect?
You can expect to be entertained.
If your conscience bugs you on the ride home, don’t be surprised.
Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.