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Reviewed by:
  • A Sudden Spontaneous Event by David Lee Nelson
  • Vivian Appler
A Sudden Spontaneous Event. By David Lee Nelson. Directed by Sharon Graci. PURE Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina. March 26, 2016.

Charleston, South Carolina, has had a year that defies adequate description. Two months after the police shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, the massacre at the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church traumatized the city in ways that the community is still processing. Despite other disasters and significant changes that occurred last year—the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds, the Thousand Year Flood, the election of a new mayor—narratives of forgiveness and reconciliation, led by the parishioners of Emanuel A.M.E., have emerged as mainstays of Charleston’s cultural conversation. David Lee Nelson’s new play, A Sudden Spontaneous Event, is not a direct response to Charleston’s current events, but the playwright tapped into the city’s communal process of loss, forgiveness, and peace as he developed the work for its world premiere at Charleston’s PURE Theatre. Spontaneous is not explicitly about the racial tensions that Charleston shares with the rest of the nation, but the domestic situation presented in PURE’s production can be read as metaphorically representative of the country’s struggle to come to terms with its racial history.

The white-washed set, designed by Richard Heffner, provided a visual double entendre against which the play’s action was set. The sparse environment, where even the props and furniture were painted white, provided a blank slate upon which audience members could project their own lives’ circumstances into Nelson’s bittersweet comedy. The all-white set also established the world in which Carole (Joy Vandervort-Cobb), the play’s African American Everywoman protagonist, had to live her life and build her career. Carole and her son George (Michael Smallwood) were the only African American characters in this production, and their fraught relationship drives the play’s action.

The first act historicizes the play by verbally underscoring issues of race that contribute to its domestic plot. Carole awakes in the sterile, Muzak-infused room with no memory of how she got there. She asks, “Is this some weird prison for white people and they made a mistake by sending me here?” Wilfred (Scott Smith-Pattison), her white, British, punk guardian angel reveals that her soul is in heaven’s waiting room while her body is in a coma after having suffered a stroke. Her case is about to be reviewed by God herself. (“Yeah God is a woman. Obviously.”) Carole’s odds of being admitted to heaven are 50/50, perhaps because her [End Page 461] sense of self has derived more from professional success than from personal relationships. Specifically, Carole’s relationship with her son, whom she left at a young age, is in question. The 58-year-old public defender demands, “You have any idea how good you have to be to look like me and get as far as I did,” but she fears that she must return to the world to make amends for her life/work imbalance. After the first act, dialogic references to race recede, but Sharon Graci’s careful direction and PURE’s clever designers kept the question of race in audience members’ minds.

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Wilfred the guardian angel coaches Carole in her personal reconciliation process. Scott Smith-Pattison (Wilfred) and Joy Vandervort-Cobb (Carole) in A Sudden Spontaneous Event. (Photo: David Mandel.)

There was an emotional lightness about PURE’s production, even as the action revolved around the high-stakes mother/son relationship. Performers donned glow-in-the-dark, night-vision goggles for a mask routine at the top of act 3, and the props’ reincorporation at the end of the play kept the mood wonderfully weird through its final moments. Another great costume device, by designer Janine McCabe, was Wilfred’s infinity scarf—what better costume choice for an angel?—that provided the actor an endless supply of physically responsive choices as he watched over Carole’s struggle to reconcile with George, from whom she has grown estranged. Wilfred used the...


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pp. 461-463
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