By Robert St. Martin
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/15/23 – Opening Saturday night at the Broadwater Main Stage in Hollywood was The Red Suitcase, the World Premiere of a new play by Jiggs Burgess and directed by accomplished director Del Shores. This well-written play explores the sometimes-difficult relationships between fathers and sons and how the sins of generation can be passed along unintentionally. The play opens with the central character Pogue (played by Emerson Collins) as he attempts to explain a dream, he often had about being a red suitcase. On a stage at the Broadwater filled with suitcases, this one suitcase is more than a metaphor for the life journey of a young boy from West Texas as he struggles from birth as a “tetched” child into an existence where his difference from other children shaped who he would become. “Tetched” is a Southern colloquial expression used by the grandmother of Pogue in The Red Suitcase to explain how and why the boy was born mildly deranged, somewhat mentally dysfunctional. In the play, we come to learn that being “tetched” also means being “queer.” This play by Jiggs Burgess explores the generational impact of how parental behavior destroys young LGBTQ youth, as we understand that “we are the sins of our ancestors” but also “we are the hope of our ancestors.”
Much like the quixotic 18th century novel Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, Pogue’s story begins before his birth in West Texas. His mother April (Kristen McCullough) is way overdue with her pregnancy and seems unable to give birth to a second son. The family has just moved into an old church as their home and the shock of being hidden by snake causes April to have complications with the pregnancy. Finally, the infant Pogue is born and immediately declared dead by the obstetrician. He is dropped by the attending nurse and suddenly starts breathing. The doctor counsels that the child will have serious learning disabilities from the late breathing and the head injury – but the child lives, and Pogue begins his arduous existence in the very limited world of this very Baptist redneck Texas family.
Pogue has few memories of his early childhood, other than his tough father Bud (Bruce Melena) who has no patience with “sissy” behaviors and Pogue’s older brother Sam (Tiago Santos) who enjoys tormenting him. The only person who seems to understand him is his loving Grandmother Evans (Charlotte Louise White) whose philosophical view of life as being like a giant oak tree that sustains all the creatures who live under its shade. It seems that Pogue’s family has a farm of sorts and every year an undocumented Mexican worker named Martín (also played by Tiago Santos) comes to help with the work. From a young age, Martín serves a nurturing presence in the boy’s life and as the father figure that he needs, given his father’s cruel insensitivity and his pendant for beating the boy with his beat at the infraction of what he calls “the rules.”
By age 8, Pogue is at the local school where he goes by bus. He ends with a sadistic schoolteacher (Pam Trotter as Mrs. Prig), who is big on order and “rules.” Pogue is a daydreamer but an excellent reader of books beyond his age. Mrs. Prig get irate about Pogue reading Catch 22 in 5th Grade and hauls him to the principal’s office and yet another whoppin’ from his father Bud. The main comforts in Pogue’s dreary life are his adoption of a mangy dog which he named “Sparky.” One of the ingenuous aspects of this performance is the puppet designed by director Del Shores to be this very mobile puppet on stage, manipulate by Pogue and other characters. A third key incident in Pogue’s fifth grade experience is meeting another boy named Charlie (played by brilliantly by Mat Hayes) who is clearly a “sissy” and takes a shine to young Pogue. They get caught together by the schoolteacher Mrs. Prig ditching class and the result is disastrous for both boys. Pogue never sees Charlie again and that sets the tone of what happens in most of the rest of the play: Nothing good lasts long.
Pogue’s dog is the recipient of his love and that will not last forever. His relationship with his brother Sam gets worse over time. His mother April seems powerless in restraining her husband’s anger. It is only Pogue’s Grandmother Evans who sees the big picture of the damage that families do to themselves, generation after generation. It is Grandmother Evans who gives young Pogue a red suitcase that was once the possession of his uncle, the brother of his father Bud. Apparently, this uncle died before Pogue was born and he never know of him because he was never mentioned. Grandmother Evans knows the dark secrets of the family and we come to understand the Uncle Charlie was “queer” and died young. He was abused by his own father, the long-deceased husband of Grandmother Evans.
This production of The Red Suitcase is noteworthy both for its fine acting and the very fluid staging that moves like a dance across the fairly small stage where actors change roles and costumes rapidly out of the many suitcases on the stage itself. Emerson Collins is a charismatic presence on stage, deftly portraying a boy at various stages of his childhood and eventually in the final scenes a grown man living in New York City and away from his Texas roots. I must say that Charlotte Louise White delivers an amazing performance as Grandmother Evans who supports young Pogue through his traumatic childhood and give him a vision of hope for a future. Eventually, she musters the strength to tell off Bud about his mistreatment of his son and confronts his redneck thinking with the truth about what happened to Uncle Charlie. Actor Bruce Melena as Bud is not a likeable character and his sadist malevolence proves too much for Grandmother Evans who finally decides to make him understand how families repeat the sins of their forebearers, over and over.
This talented cast includes three other actors who often serve as a Greek Chorus, with carefully parsed comments. Pam Trotter is the nurse who first notices that the infant Pogue is not stillborn and rises to the occasion as the cruel schoolteacher Miss Prig. She steps in to be Pogue’s sweet Aunt June and an old woman Rosella Barnes. It was interesting to see Mat Hayes be a mean Uncle Doo Doo and later a hard-ass Texas sheriff who arrests the Mexican worker Martín. But his best transformation was as the “sissy” boy Charlie in Pogue’s 5th-grade class. Thiago Santos plays Pogue’s bullying older brother, but also the nurturing kind-hearted Mexican worker Martín who seems like a father to the young boy Pogue. (He is hilarious as the chain-smoking doctor who finally delivers Pogue in the hospital at the start of the play.)
I was truly impressed by the actors’ skill at switching roles at the blink of an eye and delivering their lines with the poetry of movement in this large dance on stage. The comes a moment in the later part of the play where the house lights come on and the fourth wall of the proscenium stage seems to disappear, as Emerson Collins addresses the audience directly and asks if the story of his life journey should continue. We have witnessed the damage done by the adults to him. The question is whether there is any hope for the future in mitigating that damage, suffering and pain.
When asked playwright Jiggs Burgess explained: “It’s a play about a father son relationship Yet … it’s not. It’s a play about dreams and memories. About fear. About being unsafe and finding safety, it’s about all those things passed to us from the generations before we ever existed, both good and bad. Not least, The Red Suitcase is about believing we might be the worst of those who came before, but hoping we become the best of them.” Del Shores is the director, but he prefers to direct his own work and he enlisted Blake McEver Ewing to help with the fine staging. This is first time that Del Shores decided play not his own and to bring this play by Jiggs Burgess to the stage. The resulting production is a must-see at the Broadway Main Stage. The play presented by the P3 Theatre Company opened August 10 and runs through September 3. Performances are Fridays and Saturday at 8 PM; Sundays at 2 PM. Tickets are $38 for general admission; $33 for seniors, students and military. For tickets, go to: https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?actions=4&p=3.
For the record, Emerson Collins starred in Del Shores’ Sordid Lives sequel, A Very Sordid Wedding and also in Southern Baptist Sissies, which won 15 film festival awards. He has been involved in the national tours of both plays. Kristen McCullough was in Blues for Willadean with Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and Beth Grant. Bruce Melena has been in a number of plays in New York City and most recently in Del Shores’ A Very Sordid Wedding in a Dallas production. Pam Trotter has been in The Color Purple on Broadway and recently in The Octoroon at the Fountain Theatre and a number of plays and television shows in Hollywood. Charlotte Louise White has performed as Aunt Lou in Agatha Christie’s Love from a Stranger and as Louise in Murder on the Nile. Mat Hayes is a filmmaker and podcaster making his Broadwater debut. Tiago Santos is a recent graduate of Pacific Conservatory for Performing Arts and performed in The Human Comedy and Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.
The Red Suitcase was selected by director Del Shores as the Best Play Winner of the Del Shores Foundation Writers Search this year. Del Shores is the son of a Southern Baptist minister and grew up in Texas. Shores is a film director and producer, television writer and producer, playwright, standup comedian and actor. He has written, directed and produced across studio and independent film, network and cable television and Los Angeles, regional and national touring theatre. He is also known for his LGBTQ+ activism. Shores’ best-known play is his fourth, Sordid Lives, which premiered in 1996 in Los Angeles. The comedy centered on the Texan Ingram family and touched on LGBTQ themes.
In 1999, Shores wrote and directed the screen version of Sordid Lives starring Beau Bridges, Delta Burke, Olivia Newton-John, Bonnie Bedelia, Leslie Jordan and Beth Grant along with most of the cast from the play. The movie became a cult phenomenon and holds the record as the longest running film in the history of Palm Springs, running ninety-six weeks at The Camelot Theatre. Shores’ play Southern Baptist Sissies enjoyed a ten-month sold-out run at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles in 2000. Revived in 2002, Sissies had another six-month sold-out run.
In 2003, The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife became Shores’ most critically acclaimed play ran for a six-month sold-out run at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles. n 2008, Shores created, wrote, directed and executive produced 12 pre-quel episodes of Sordid Lives: The Series, which aired on American LGBT-interest cable channel Logo featuring Shores’ film of his play Southern Baptist Sissies played the film festival circuit in 2013 and won ten major awards, including many for Shores’ writing and directing. The film stars Emerson Collins, Willam Belli, Matthew Scott Montgomery, Luke Stratte-McClure, Newell Alexander, Rosemary Alexander, Bobbie Eakes, Ann Walker, Dale Dickey and Leslie Jordan. Olivia Newton-John, Bonnie Bedelia, Rue McClanahan, Leslie Jordan, Beth Grant, Dale Dickey, Caroline Rhea along with many of the original stage and film cast. The series also featured cameos by Carson Kressley, Candis Cayne and Margaret Cho.