The PenOwl Theatre Company here at Penn State Harrisburg had opened its theatrical wings again this semester to bring us another inspiring and well written play in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day. A small but enterprising company, all 21 original short plays are written by Dr. Dorothy E. King, a retired assistant professor of sociology here at Penn State Harrisburg, and founder of PenOwl Productions.
“Millie D’s Bar and Grille” takes place in 1950’s York, PA, in small but homey diner, owned previously to the main character’s cousin, Millie D. The main character Mason Dixon now runs the establishment with his daughter, Audra. The story begins in the diner, right after opening and where they discuss menu changes as their fridge has broken down. Local customers like Paul Foote, a local businessman, and out of towners, such as the traveling choir group drop in and receive the same warm welcome. Only when a white man, Bill Hoffman and his daughter Ginger, waiting for their car to be repaired in the mechanics shop, causes any sort of ruckus, as the man is uncomfortable in a black owned establishment. They depart, and another family comes in, of husband Ernest Kinard and his wife Sandra and daughter Aida, where they retell a story of racial insult while at a gas station. In the end Mason retells a story of working alongside whites during segregation protests during the 60s, and while not everyone was entirely satisfied, Bill was able to shake hands with Ernest and his family and sit down and enjoy cake and cornbread together as Rachel, Gloria, Ester and Cleff from the traveling choir sings “This Little Heart of Mine”.
Dr. King’s mastery of dialogue and true emotion of her characters really makes the show feel very realistic, like I wouldn’t feel out of place listening to a conversation at a diner such as this one. Her ability to write raw, unaltered anguish, such as when Ernest laments about his wife and daughter being scorned at by white folks when at a gas station. Combined with some truly talented actors, it leaves you in your seat in awe. The innocence and genuine interest that Aida and Ginger share between each other that simply transcends racial tensions that their fathers very clearly cannot seem to remove themselves from, is a joy to watch them interact and simply be friends with no conditional prejudice.
As for behind the scenes, it was a fun trip to Theatre Harrisburg to find all sort of diner-esqe props such as coffee mugs and cake stands, and strange shaped 1950’s coffee carafes. I have become an expert on folding napkins due to this show. I’ve also become quite skilled at making (ugly) but sturdy tables, as we had to make six of them. I’m grateful for the floor length tablecloths, because I pray none of these tables grace the inside of a household. It was a good trial of my skill as a carpenter, as we had to build 6 tables, a bar, and the flats to really flesh out the scene. Hanging the windows with aircraft cable was the most difficult part, as it was a lot of minute adjustments, and someone yelling “a little too much to the left!” from somewhere in the house. Also my sweatshirt will never recover from the amount of brown paint used for this show.
All in all, working another Dr. King show is always a emotional and physical rollercoaster, and I look forward to the next one.