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Charlotte Amalie
Saturday, July 20, 2024


If, for some perverse purpose, you were intending to go see David Edgecombe's new play at the Reichhold Center for the Arts this weekend because you'd read or heard that it was full of four-letter words, save your money. The language has been cleaned up, a lot.
If, on the other hand, you had decided to give the production a miss for the same reason, well, there's bad news and good news.
The bad news is that the Saturday and Sunday shows of "Smile, Natives, Smile" are sold out.
The good news is that tickets are available for Monday's performance.
However, things are not that simple for those concerned with the language issue. Edgecombe, having excised most of the scatological terms originally in the play for its run here, said Saturday afternoon that he is thinking about "doing the original with all of the language in" just on Monday night.
The performance that the audience saw on opening night Friday was a far different version from what was presented at a by-invitation preview for the media and others in the community on Aug. 16 before Edgecombe and company took the play on tour to Montserrat, St. Kitts and Antigua prior to its four-night run back home at the Reichhold.
Friday night, the f – – – and f – – – ing epithets that had earlier rolled off the tongues of both characters in what seemed like virtually every exchange were nowhere to be heard. There was the occasional damn and the four-letter word for excrement, but, as one Friday playgoer who had also attended the preview put it, "It was believable, and I hardly noticed it."
This person, who asked not to be named, added of the revised version: "I liked it. I thought it was stronger and richer. In the preview, the language seemed forced and unnecessary. I don't think these people would have talked that way. It was every other word like you hear from some people on the street who can't express themselves in any other way."
And, for those who saw the preview, the very last moments are different, too, with a change of dynamic between the two characters – a university professor who is an unpublished novelist and one of his students who has had her work published in the New Yorker. Professional actors based in New York were cast in both roles.
Edgecombe, the author of "Smile, Natives, Smile" and director of the Reichhold Center, said Saturday afternoon that in writing the play, he took a new tack in developing the characters' dialogue from what he had done in previous works.
"In my head, with these two people, I just had them talk, respond to each other – what they will do now, what they will say. In other plays, I had a road map. This time I didn't impose anything. I wanted to get a kind of claustrophobic effect. The phone doesn't ring; there are no flashbacks."
Regarding the language, "I knew there would be some flak," he said. "I had no idea it would have been this much." He acknowledged that, for those who came to see "Smile, Natives, Smile" in the preview and on the other islands, "the language created a resistance to the play."
He said "it was always in my mind" to do another version "with the language toned down," so the play could be presented for student audiences.
More significant to him was the change in the ending, in which the female character's ultimate action toward her desired "closure" with the male character is reversed.
George Brown, the play's director, returned to his home in Texas after the preview performance Aug. 16, and Edgecombe has taken over the director's role since then.
It was known from the start of rehearsals that Brown, a faculty member at Texas Christian University, would have to leave after the preview. "Classes started early there," Edgecombe said. "He went right back into auditioning a play that he is doing there this fall."
According to Douglas Salisbury, acting technical director at the Reichhold, the reworking of the script "was sort of a gradual process, particularly after the Carifesta performance" in St. Kitts.
"We were getting some feedback before we even got to Montserrat" regarding the blue language, he said. "People had called from here."
At the end of the preview performance, those present were asked their views, and a number of them said they found the four-letter words intrusive, out of character and/or disruptive to the otherwise compelling story line of the play.
It's nothing unusual for a playwright and director to keep revising their script and staging right up to opening night, Salisbury noted, although "it's pretty tricky for the cast and crew. We never quite do the show the same way twice."
He saw it as a positive experience: "I sort of think of it as the out-of-town tryouts before a New York opening. We don't often get a chance to do that down here."
Another "work-in-progress" aspect of the play has had to do with the scenery, Salisbury said. The set is the living room-kitchen of the professor's residence, a fairly nondescript, inexpensive apartment.
"Part of our scenery is still floating around in the sea somewhere," Salisbury said. In taking the production on tour, the plan had been to carry a part of the set with them on the plane. But the airline had "made some changes in the amount and type of cargo that could be loaded," he said. They put the items ("everything but the kitchen sink – well, actually part of a kitchen sink") on a boat for St. Kitts, their second stop on the tour, where the play was a part of the Carifesta arts festival.
At Montserrat, the first stop, "We built a new piece, then stored it and picked it up after Carifesta for use in Antigua," he said. Meantime, for Carifesta, the set that was being shipped down from St. Thomas was on a boat that was diverted because of Hurricane Debby. So, "we built another one. … We've probably built that kitchen counter four or five times."
In the view of the playgoer who attended both the preview and Friday's opening, the changes are very much for the better.
"Other things changed because they took the language out," she said. "Scenes became more complex. The dialogue became more intricate." Of Edgecombe, she added, "I really respect him for doing that."
Edgecombe, however, isn't convinced that his work benefits from the language changes except in the sense that it will draw a wider audience. "The play is not as true to the characters as I would like it to be," he said. "There are ways that you say some things that you cannot translate."
For that reason, he said, he may do Monday's performance with the original language intact. But as of Saturday afternoon, he hadn't made the decision.
One other thing that caught those who attended both the preview and the Friday performance by surprise was the physical performance site. While the preview was played out on the Reichhold stage with the audience also seated there, on Friday the set was in place on the stone walkway between the covered and uncovered seating areas, and playgoers were seated in the lower rows of the wooden tiered seats (and were provided complimentary cushions).
The stage had been uncomfortably hot, while the performance in the open air was much more pleasant physically, the person who attended both performances said.
In Friday's audience, of course, only those who had attended the preview performance knew of the changes in language, plot and staging.
Show time for the three remaining performances is 8 p.m. For reservations, and to learn which language version will be performed on Monday, call the Reichhold box office at 693-1559.

Editor's note: For a preview of the play, based on the preview preformance and earlier script, see
the story headlined
"Smile, Natives, Smile" at Reichhold Center.

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