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Can a writer steal the souls of black folk?

Bee-luther-hatchee, the Thomas Gibbons play currently presented by Borderlands Theater, is a debate on creativity, race relations and cultural integrity that hinges on a surprise revelation.

You can't discuss the play in any depth without ruining the surprise, so consider everything in this review after the next paragraph one big spoiler.

Before you avert your eyes, here's the thumbs up/thumbs down routine. Although not every performance gelled on opening night, director Barclay Goldsmith offered a well-designed, sincerely-played production of a script that will trigger arguments but not change the mind of anyone who already has an opinion about its issues. Go see it if you want to be provoked. If you don't want to be provoked, you're reading the wrong paper, anyway. You're better off catching a movie with Phil Villareal.

Now, on to specifics. Bee-luther-hatchee revolves around Shelita Burns, an African-American editor at a small publishing house. Shelita oversees a line of books that salvages old first-person accounts of being black in the United States. She has an unexpected best-seller on her hands when she publishes the memoir of a 72-year-old Southern woman named Libby Price. Libby is as reclusive as Thomas Pynchon; Shelita has never actually met her, or even spoken with her on the phone.

You may guess what's coming: The memoir's true author isn't Libby at all, but a middle-aged white man named Sean Leonard.

Shelita feels betrayed on a number of levels. She'd never known her mother or had any luck with men, but she sensed a profound connection with "Libby" during their editorial correspondence; indeed, she'd come to regard Libby as a surrogate mother. She must feel doubly foolish, having declared that the memoir owes its success to the authenticity of the author's voice.

Shelita doesn't go into this with Sean, though; her complaint is that Sean has profited from stories that don't belong to him. African Americans, she maintains, have exclusive rights to their own cultural history, and Sean has committed literary miscegenation.

Playwright Gibbons is a white Yankee, and he seems sympathetic with Sean, who defends his book as something no less truthful for being a work of imagination. Nobody would object, he points out, if he wrote about a 13th-century French peasant, someone far more distant from him culturally and linguistically than a contemporary black woman. Besides, the stories in the memoir are true--he knew Libby in his childhood, when she lived for a year with him and his widowed father.

Libby appears throughout the play, either in flashbacks or as a figure standing by a railroad crossing, uttering the words attributed to her in the memoir. She says she doesn't have a normal kind of soul, but what she calls a smoke-soul--like smoke, it's real and you can see it, but you can never grab onto it, and soon, it's gone. Even the devil himself can't catch her when she dreams of being on a train that lets her off at Bee-luther-hatchee, the stop after hell for people who aren't ordinary sinners.

Libby is equally elusive for Shelita and even Sean, who lost track of her in his youth. Yet both antagonists are trying to do the same thing: give a voice to someone who otherwise wouldn't be able to tell her own story.

Act 2 is mainly the debate between Shelita and Sean, and neither character is likely to inspire audience members to reconsider their own positions. Shelita is arrogant and self-righteous, and poses as the cultural equivalent of a victims'-rights advocate. She sees everything in literally black-and-white terms: "The truth is simple," she insists.

Sean believes the truth to be messily complex, but matches Shelita's arrogance in his arguments for the power and justice of the creative imagination.

On opening night, Dwayne Palmer played up Sean's nice-guy aspect without delving quite deeply enough into the character's loneliness, regrets and small resentments. Palmer did a superb balancing act as the villain-turned-hero in last September's Sins of Sor Juana, so he'll likely find more nuances in Sean as the run continues.

Similarly, Tyshaun Layne as Shelita initially seemed to be reciting her lines more than living them, but when things began to heat up in Act 2, her portrayal grew much more colorful and compelling.

Ann Fortune Gamble is a fine Libby; she creates a character who's solid and resilient and able to give far more comfort than she's ever received. Ron Richards, in his first Tucson appearance, proves to be a subtle, entirely believable presence as Sean's father and as a journalist, and Marla McCall is also appealing as Shelita's best friend.

John Longhoffer's scenic design deserves particular praise; he creates a proscenium arch from a big map of the Deep South with the center ripped out of it; a huge, yellowed, crumpled page of typescript flies off on either side.

Words themselves hurtle through this play, words that form bitter questions but not answers. Playwright Thomas Gibbons expects you to come up with your own answers--which will probably be wrong.

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