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Hatred Still Familiar : Writer and performers draw on personal experience for the debut of 'Under the Moon.'

July 29, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Everything's different, Gertrude Stein said, and yet everything's the same. That's the paradox Layce Gardner explores in her drama "Under the Moon," opening this weekend at American Renegade Theatre.

The play takes place in 1958 in Mississippi, before the civil rights movement, before the sexual revolution, before women's lib and gay lib. And Gardner comments on all of these societal advancements from the dark perspective of that long-ago abyss when, to paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein's lyric, "You've got to be taught/Before it's too late/ . . . to hate."

In the story, Opal Wilson, a widow, is trying valiantly to raise her three daughters properly. Suddenly it all seems to go awry. Her second daughter is beginning to discover her homosexuality. Her youngest, equating love with pain, is a victim of self-abuse. And her oldest is dating a black man, Henry Davis. Opal's prejudice rises to the boiling point, and she lashes out in anger at her oldest daughter's liaison.

Gardner, whose play "Tiger Lady" is enjoying an Equity production in Dallas, grew up in an insular Oklahoma town that had a sign on its outskirts, "If You're Black, Don't Let the Sun Set on You Here." In fact, she did not meet anyone black until she went to college, but the thought of that sign, which wasn't removed until she was 10 years old, was hard to erase.

"It's something that just never made any sense to me," Gardner says. "I started having black friends in college, and seeing the racial prejudice, seeing it firsthand. I had a black lover about a year ago and experienced it again. Even in L.A., which I believe is more progressive than other parts of the country, there is still a lot of prejudice."

Then her best friend for 12 years, from college days, started dating a man who is half-black, half-white, and when her friend had a child, Gardner started thinking in terms of a plot for a play.

"My reasoning was," she says, "I wanted to show how it was in 1958, and how much it hasn't changed. It's a timeless thing. The interracial love story has been told before, but I wanted to take it from the female perspective, which I haven't seen yet. Then I juxtaposed a subplot of a lesbian to show how society always dictates who we can and cannot love, and how unfair it is in each situation."

Two of her cast members have memories that help to inform their characterizations.

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Gail Bearden, who was in the film "Working Girl" and had a recurring role on "One Life to Live," was born and raised in Natchez, Miss. She doesn't remember prejudice in her home, particularly concerning Mary, the black woman who worked for the family and who practically raised her. But she does remember her shock and disbelief when she realized that she and Mary couldn't sit in the same waiting room for doctors' visits.

Bearden says, "Always the glaring issue in the South was black-white. Sometimes people didn't like Catholics, people didn't like Jews, but it really was a black-white thing. I was taught by my mother to say 'colored.' In those days they were called three things, and the nicest was 'colored.' That was a sign of respect." She also remembers the civil rights movement coming in 1964, but says it was slow in taking hold.

Timothy Antwine, who plays Henry, the daughter's boyfriend, has appeared on "I'll Fly Away" and "In the Heat of the Night." He too was raised in the South, in Louisiana. Although he was born at the end of the '60s, he doesn't think much changed after the passage of the Civil Rights Bill.

"There's an unsaid code," he states. "You know you shouldn't do certain things. You know you shouldn't join certain organizations because you actually don't belong. You tend to follow that code that's unsaid, and everybody tends to deny it. It's going on here in L.A."

Do Henry's character and his situation sound familiar?

Antwine says, "Henry Davis reminds me so much of myself, in that he doesn't want to be a part of what's going on there in Mississippi. Not wanting to be a part of the old school, wanting to break away from that. He's tired of the bowing down, the back-seating, the humbleness. He wants so much to be accepted. And respected. I can relate to that."

The playwright and her actors agree that it is the same kind of socially dysfunctional thinking of people who hate everyone who is different. As Gardner says, "I'm trying to point out the irrelevancy of it all. I guess in this play it's love versus fear. But love is good. Who cares, as long as you're loving, truly loving?"

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Under the Moon."

Location: American Renegade Theatre, 11305 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 11.

Price: $10-$12.

Call: (818) 763-4430.

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