This weekend, Emmy winner and Tony nominated actress S. Epatha Merkerson will be appearing in a production at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse for two performances only, May 19 and 20. Merkerson, known to many fans for her work on the shows “Law and Order” (17 seasons),“Chicago Med” (eight seasons), and, more recently, “Lackawanna Blues,” will star in a staged reading of the new play “Miss Maybelline’s Nocturnal Flights of Fancy.” The drama-comedy, which takes place primarily in Oak Bluffs, features characters drawn from former local residents, and focuses on a tight-knit community which has been relegated to Vineyard history.
“Miss Maybelline” is written by veteran television, stage, and screenwriter Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, who splits her time between her homes in Los Angeles and Oak Bluffs. McGhee-Anderson calls the play “an homage to a way of life that is gone,” explaining that School Street in Oak Bluffs was once populated by a number of African Americans whose local roots traced back generations. “People would sit on their porches and visit with each other,” she says. “That personality and culture has vanished. The character of the street has changed, and many of those characters have died.”
The playhouse’s website offers a brief description of the play: “A spirited centenarian and lifelong Oak Bluffs resident forges a friendship with an autistic teenage neighbor. A stirring, poignant story about one woman’s remarkable life, and the enduring power of place in the African American community.”
Although Merkerson is far from the age of the 110-year-old title character, McGhee-Anderson was inspired by Cicely Tyson’s portrayal of an older character in the film “The Trip to Bountiful.” “Tyson played a character much older than herself. A really good actor can do that effectively,” says the playwright. “I am so honored to have someone of the caliber of Epatha as part of the cast.”
The five-person cast has been in rehearsal for almost two weeks now. Other members include Broadway actors Michelle Wilson (Tony nominee), and Michael Boatman. Rounding out the cast is Cate Damon, who has appeared in previous playhouse productions, and newcomer Owen Alleyne, who will take on the role of a 14-year-old autistic boy.
Billed as a staged reading, the actors will be referring to their scripts, but the performances will include movement, props, sound effects, and music.
McGhee-Anderson is clearly thrilled to work with such a talented cast, and notes that Merkerson arrived on-Island fully prepared for her role, to the extent of having learned all of the songs which her character sings throughout the play. These include a mix of blues from the turn of the last century, music rooted in folk traditions, and even some African call-and-response songs.
Along with music, “Miss Maybelline” is equal parts charm, history, long-kept secrets, and well-earned wisdom from the title character. Centering around the relationship between a beloved matriarchal figure and an autistic young man, the play has heart, humor, and poignancy. “While Miss Maybelline is passing on her knowledge to this young boy, she is also helping shepherd him into manhood and develop his sense of self-worth,” says McGhee-Anderson. “He doesn’t understand his own value. He is marginalized both as an autistic child and as a black boy.”
McGhee-Anderson drew inspiration for some of her characters from former neighbors on School Street, including two of her mother’s friends from the neighborhood, both of whom have since passed away.
The playwright notes that not many people today know the history of the homes on School Street. She says that many were moved from their original location in the M.V. Campground when Black owners were forced out of that closed community. McGhee-Anderson notes that a writer for the M.V. Museum’s publication “The Dukes County Intelligencer” recently resurrected the School Street history through an extensive article that can be found on its website. “They did a very thoroughly researched article about the ‘cleansing’ of the Campground,” she says. “It’s important for African Americans to realize what was formerly owned by previous generations. From decades back, they’ve had a foothold on the Vineyard.” However, as she notes, many families, lacking the advantages of their wealthier neighbors, weren’t always able to keep up with rising taxes and the higher cost of Vineyard living, and many of the homes were sold or torn down.
Today School Street houses the Oak Bluffs Town Hall and the Oak Bluffs library, along with a number of newer homes, but it once was a vibrant, integrated neighborhood. McGhee-Anderson has managed with her new play to shine a spotlight on this all-but-forgotten story, and she hopes to revive interest in the longstanding history of African Americans on the Vineyard.
“Miss Maybelline’s Nocturnal Flights of Fancy,” a staged reading, will be performed on Friday, May 19, and Saturday, May 20, at 7 pm. The reading is funded in part by the Martha’s Vineyard Community Foundation.Tickets are available at mvplayhouse.org/theater.