There’s something wrong with Mary Tilford, and everyone seems to know it. The young protagonist of “The Children’s Hour,” a play originally written by Lillian Hellman in the 1930s, seems intensely diabolical, at first glance, for no reason. However, the College of William and Mary’s Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance’s Oct. 4-7 production of the play, performed at the Kimball Theatre, was less concerned with vilifying Mary and more preoccupied with exploring the nuances of the play’s themes of race, gender, sexuality, authority and truth.
Mary, played by a buoyant Anna Boustany ’21, is a student at the Wright-Dobie School for Girls. One day, after being reprimanded for breaking mundane school rules, she accuses her headmistresses, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, of being lovers. Mary’s grandmother, Amelia Tilford, played by Hannah Brown ’20, responds to these accusations by convincing the other students’ families to take their daughters out of the school. This accusation ruins Karen and Martha’s reputation, deprives them of their main source of income and sets off an emotionally fraught sequence of events for all parties involved.
In most adaptations of the play, white actors are cast in every role, despite the fact that the real court case that inspired the play saw a multiracial girl leveling the accusation against her headmistresses. However, the College’s production, directed by theater professor Artisia Green, cast actors to be inclusive of multiple ethnicities, genders, sexual identities and body types. In this production, the two women who run the school, Karen and Martha, are played by black actresses — Divinity Summers ’20 and Neonna Ferebee ’20, respectively — as is Martha’s aunt Lily Mortar, played by Arika Thames ’19.
According to Green, this production was inspired by “black aesthetic practices,” which was evident in choices ranging from the set, to costumes, to hair and makeup, to the musical choices. The deconstruction of the original text’s ethnic heterogeneity adds nuance to the production. Instead of being about the fallout of Mary’s behavior, it becomes a study in how ethnicity, class and heterosexuality carry with them explicit authority and privilege.
Though Boustany identifies as multiracial, her character and the character of her grandmother are staged to emphasize their privilege, both in terms of class and race. Amelia herself first appears on stage in a satin nightgown, and the aristocratic drawl Brown performs with further contributes to the overall affectation of wealth and entitlement.
In an emotional moment, Martha pleads to Amelia to be reasonable, telling her, “You’re not playing with paper dolls — you’re playing with people.” For a contemporary audience, living in a country so distinctly synonymous with a history of racial injustice, especially against African Americans, this plea directed at a wealthy white woman from a self-made African-American woman carries an added weight.
While the mandatory evacuation for Hurricane Florence cut down on the production’s rehearsal time, the cast and crew still managed to put together an elegant and powerful production that did justice to the source material’s weighty themes.
The ensemble cast features strong performances as well. The girls at the school add some levity to the ultimately thematically dark play. Lily Greenwald ’19 drew laughs as the melodramatic Peggy Rogers. Brennan McCray ’20 portrays Rosalie Wells, the target of most of Mary’s bullying and manipulation, with humor and empathy. Jayqua Williams ’20 also steals every scene she’s in as Amelia Tilford’s nosy, no-nonsense maid, Agatha.
Even by the play’s conclusion, when the libel suit is settled in Karen and Martha’s favor and the truth finally comes out, Amelia does not fully get her redemption arc. The damage has been done, and the play does not just leave her character with impunity. In a powerful moment in the play’s final scene, Karen tells Amelia she won’t be her confessor. Her guilt is her own to bear.
Editor’s Note: The Flat Hat would like to clarify that Anna Boustany ’21 is an Opinions Associate Editor for the paper. Her involvement with The Children’s Hour event is not on behalf of the paper’s interests.9