Home in Her Heart
nytheatre.com review by Steven Cherry
April 25, 2012
Home in Her Heart opens with a woman, dressed in a man’s suit, singing and tap dancing and mugging for the audience. All the while, off to the side of the stage sits a piano player who has no lines and is not even playing the music that we hear (it comes from offstage). The program notes say the singer-dancer is the playwright, and you quickly wonder if this is going to be one of those shows that lies in the no-man’s land (pun intended) between a one-person show and a play.
Not to worry. This is a genuine play—in fact, the playwright gives the best speech to the piano-playing character; it’s a very fine speech indeed, and it closes the show.
Home in Her Heart is part of annual Left Out Festival, which is devoted to emerging LGBT theater, so it comes as no surprise that Jimmie, the 50-year-old white tap dancing cross-dresser, and Claire, the thirtysomething Negro piano player, are lovers. “Negro,” as in 1939; the play is set in London, with the two women being ordered out of England, along with every other American, by a consulate that fears the impending war.
Though the show is still, technically, in workshop, the performance I went to on April 25th was sold out, and the original run of two festival performances is being extended. There were a few rough edges, but the story is sound and, on the whole, worked beautifully.
And while the basic plot device—Europe’s relative tolerance used as a lens through which we can better see racist, sexist America—is at least as old as James Baldwin writing from Paris, this story transcends two-dimensionality by locating the standard conflicts of black/white and gay/straight in two specific characters who love each other but in very different ways: Claire is the realist who knows their relationship cannot survive Jim Crow when they return home; Jimmie is the optimist who wants to push on, hoping it can.
The characters are even more individualized than that: We think of realists as the people ready to compromise, but for Claire the love of her family, and her place in the middle-class community she grew up in, are absolutes that she won’t put at risk, while her scrappy hopeful lover has compromised her happiness at every turn, sacrificing on the altar of lesbian love the regard of her father and the aunt who taught her to sing and dance. Jimmie is the one who has learned to “make do” and “get by.”
The performances are, in the main, excellent, though both Margaret Morrison (Jimmie) and Ericka Hart (Claire) are young for their roles: Morrison looks closer to 40 than 50, and mid-30s is quite a stretch for Hart. I also thought the show suffered from the fact that while Morrison sings and dances adeptly, as her character is supposed to be able to, Hart’s character’s piano playing is done offstage (beautifully, I should add, by Cynthia Hilts, who also wrote the show’s one original song).
As could be expected at the workshop stage, as well, Morrison knew her lines nearly perfectly, while Hart hesitated several times—but not once during the beautiful speech at the end that encapsulates the theme of love in general and the very specific love her character feels. That speech, like the love it expresses, was flawless.