‘Countdown to the Happy Day’ at Baltimore Playwrights Festival by ZSun-nee Matema


It’s official, Baltimore actors are at the top of the acting ladder. The production, Countdown to the Happy Day by Thomas W. Stephen is absolutely breath taking! It has been selected to compete in Baltimore’s Playwrights Festival with scenes from the play to be presented at The Kennedy Center on September 2nd during the Page to Stage Festival.

The play is a two character study of Gertie (Terry Johnson-Bey), a homeless U.S. Army Veteran and Cervin (Paris Alexander), a school drop-out who lives on welfare with his drug addicted mother. Together they kept me spellbound. The portrayal of down and out souls fluctuating between fight and flight determined the strength of this play.

Terry Johnson-Bey (Gertie), a homeless U.S. Army Veteran Paris Alexander (Cervin). Photo courtesy of Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
Terry Johnson-Bey (Gertie) and Paris Alexander (Cervin). Photo courtesy of Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

As the play opens, Cervin meets Gertie on the street with the much seen grocery store cart filled with her necessities. As the two grope through their pain, grief and anger, the true nature of their despair becomes apparent – they need someone to love and depend on.

From the skillfully designed set brought to life by Prince NoRa, Gertie’s cluttered street home and Cervin’s cluttered house symbolize the emotional clutter they both hope to stuff into non-existence. The show was designed to evoke feelings of vacant insecurity with trash strewn about the streets where Gertie made her home as well as in Cervin’s home where similar bundles of trash could be found in and around the sparsely furnished home the feeling. The church scene was truly designed to give the feeling of a substantial environment with structure and purpose. You knew the pastor was someone with a commitment to his congregation and could believe that he cared about the church program for the homeless and those disenfranchised from society.

Dr. Percy W. Thomas should be heralded as one of Baltimore’s finest directors. His ability to move his actors from one point of engaging interaction to another was flawless. The actors themselves were magnificent.

Terry Johnson-Bey is without a doubt the strongest actor I have seen in years. As she draws the audience into her character’s frustration which has nearly driven her mad, we learn that her suffering is caused by a family tragedy. That tragedy is responsible for her awkward and episodic seizures which occur at the mention of children and death.  At the death of Cervin’s mother, Gertie is outfitted in a hand-me-down black funeral dress and blonde wig. The specter of Gertie acting out her anger through the vision of what she might have been had she not risked everything to “being all that she could be” is alarming.

The range of Terry Johnson-Bey’s acting talent is difficult to describe because she has such an immense ability to give of herself totally in one of the most difficult roles I can imagine any actor being given. She brings us to her heartache and teaches us about sacrifice, loneliness and suffering borne in isolation in a way that I shall never forget.

If seeing Gertie brought to life as demons war within is a brilliant and brutally honest portrait of her disenchantment with life then the insecure ramplings and disconnected emotions of Cervin are equally handled well by Paris Alexander. Acting since the age of 10, Paris shows a maturity and ability to handle the playwright’s material like a seasoned actor which, despite his still young age, he is. As his character, Cervin, the teen-aged son of a chronically ill woman, he brings the audience into the sensitive place where his youthful heart yearns for a stable home. He both clings to and rejects Gertie mostly, I suspect, because her unkempt appearance mirrors the same disheveled emotions he feels internally. As his life begins to deteriorate with the death of his mother, he faces no other choice but to consider Gertie as a surrogate mother. The two actors are so attuned to each other’s movements and portrayals that the audience become voyeurs in this private world that belongs only to them. The actors report that they gave generously to hours of rehearsal time and it shows.

One caution, this is not a show for those who shrink at foul language…not for children. For those who see language as descriptive of a story line without judging, this is the show for you. It definitely tells a story. It brings elements of the human drama center stage. If you can only see one show this year, this would be the one. I struggled to hold back a tear as some of the life lessons were laid bare.

Margaret Locklear, Producer and Co-Director and Dr. Alice H. Thomas, Executive Producer, can be proud of their work and support of Countdown to the Happy Day.  If you think, street people are just crazy and have no story worth listening to, you’ll have another opinion after seeing this play. It’s stark, it’s in your face and it’s grand!

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

header_titleCountdown to the Happy Day plays through September 1, 2013 at Baltimore Playwrights Festival at the Sojourner-Douglass College – 200 N. Central Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. The entrance to the Theater is at the Rear of the Building off Aisquith Street.There is free parking.

Tickets may be purchased at the door, or in advance by calling (410) 997-5779.

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ZSun-nee Matema
A Baltimore transplant by way of Washington, DC and Silver Spring, Zunny has loved theater since her mom put her in the Capitol Ballet Guild and the Directors in turn kept her busy with roles in local DC Theater productions. Learning to tell a story to an audience be it dance, plays or cable productions is all the same to Zunny – exhilarating! Arena Stage gave her a life altering theater experience while today she blends her love of theater with teaching history, her other love. “Incredible!” is how Zunny characterizes her 13 years with performing companies, AFRIASIA & The Painted Gourd: Red & Black Voices. Zunny considers theater the greatest teacher in the world. No one was more shocked than she when the creation of intercultural shows culminated in the New York production of “Remember the Sweetgrass,” produced by the NBC Playhouse. With three plays written and produced, cable directing and writing awards under her belt, at last, Zunny, gives in to what she’s known all along, nothing satisfies like Theater! She is proud to be a part of the DCMetroTheaterArts family!