Roanoke Times
February 3, 2012

'Emancipation' provides provocative entertainment

By Nona Nelson

A few years ago, folk singer/songwriter Todd Snider penned a tune titled "Conservative Christian Right-Wing Republican Straight White American Males." I would venture to guess that playwright Jeff Goode's "The Emancipation of Alabaster McGill," now playing at Studio Roanoke, will not appeal to the folks described in the title of Snider's song.

The nearly two-hour comedy is filled with double entendres, dirty jokes, allegories and innuendos. It also happens to be outrageously funny and, if you are not the sort who is easily offended, it's a great evening of intelligent and provocative entertainment.

The setting is a small town in Kentucky in 1863, on the eve of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. This impending event is the hot topic of discussion in the first act - an impromptu "tea party" held on the front porch of Avner Pillcock, whose fruit cellar is reputed to be a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The correlation the play draws between the historic document that ended slavery and California's Proposition 8, which constitutionally banned gay marriage in that state and is still being appealed in the court system, is apparent as the all-male cast rapidly fires reasons why freedom should be supported and/or repressed - often the same character argues both points through convoluted, and hilarious, twists of logic.

The characters include a local deacon who preaches against abominations and the slippery slope of freedom, the town's deputy who is always up for a lynching of anyone who differs from his incoherent and ever-changing definition of normal, and two impressionable young gay men whose opinions are easily swayed by the fiery rhetoric of the other tea-swilling porch guests.

The title character, played by Michael Brickler, is a slave belonging to Avner and does not appear until the second act, which takes place the day after the proclamation is signed and he's out of the fruit cellar. The addition of Alabaster to the group leads to some of the best moments of the play, which shines a bright spotlight on bigotry and racism. Alabaster eventually proclaims his love for Avner, his former master, and the pair end up exchanging a prolonged kiss.

Director Cheryl Snodgrass does an excellent job of pacing the action and the dialogue, which moves quickly but allows the audience time to absorb both the message and the jokes. All the actors turned in strong performances to a half-full theater on Wednesday's opening night, but Ross Laguzza and Brian O'Sullivan steal the show as the cantankerous deacon and the inept deputy, respectively.

Goode deserves accolades for writing a smart script that addresses civil and gay rights, marriage equality and fear-mongering that also happens to be snort-your-beverage-through-your-nose funny. The show has adult themes and a pro-gay rights message, so theatergoers should take that into consideration when deciding if they would find "Alabaster McGill" entertaining.

However, there is nothing more outrageous here than can found on a typical episode of prime-time shows like "Glee" and "Modern Family," so it would be appropriate for teenagers with adult guidance.

If you go:

"The Emancipation of Alabaster McGill"

Where: Studio Roanoke, 30 Campbell Ave., Roanoke

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Feb. 8-11; 2 p.m. Feb. 12.

Cost: $15 in advance; $20 at the door; $12 for students and active military

Contact: 343-3054;