Young Man From Atlanta: Reflections on Time Period & Race

by Eva Abram

Young Man From Atlanta Cast Member (Etta Doris Menifree)

Eva Abram as Etta Doris Menifree (Photo by Armen Stein)

Preparing for the role of Etta Doris took me on a journey back into our nation’s history – 1950’s in the south.  It was a time when Negroes were restricted to the amount of schooling one could get and the types of jobs available to them.  They cooked meals to nourish their employers while at the same time providing their own families with less nourishing meals and less “quality” time.  Somehow they managed to keep their dignity and remain hopeful.  I was reminded of the resilience of my ancestors and of the strength it took just to survive the daily assaults and insults on their humanity.  This knowledge I built into the character of Etta Doris.  How did she feel about the mistreatment?  How did she cope with it?  And what of her own family?

Etta Doris, a woman who suffered the laws of Jim Crow on a daily basis, had to be portrayed without bitterness and with the dignity and the love she presented to those around her.  Knowing what I do of American historic events regarding race that has happened since Etta Doris’ time, such as the Civil Rights struggle, I too have reasons to be resentful.  Making the transformation back to her time required that I be careful to avoid anger that could arise given those circumstances.  I also worked with the intention of portraying my character with a depth of integrity, dignity and truth, which she deserves.

Upon visiting Lily Dale, Etta Doris realizes how they have prospered and how she and others like her have not prospered.  This is yet another reason for her to be bitter, a reminder of how things stand between the races.  As stated, Etta Doris has been able to acknowledge the disparities and move on making the best of her life.  She quickly gets to the reason for her visit – to give condolence to a grieving family whom she cared for so long ago.

As Etta Doris, one of my objectives was to remind the family of their son’s humanity.  In preparing for my role I thought about the many inhumane things occurring in the world today and in the past – wars, conflicts, assaults on sexuality, racism – things that allow us to treat people as “other,” to wipe away their humanness.  I considered different sides of the problems, which allowed me to delve deeper into the emotions we experience when faced with issues that challenge our beliefs and upbringing.  Given all the circumstances, ultimately Etta Doris chooses face the issues with kindness, which is also the choice I had to make.

Foote’s play reminds us that families dealing with the tragedy of the death (suicide) of a child suffer immensely, whether the unspeakable happened today or in the 1950’s.  The difference today is in how they deal with the fact of their child’s sexuality.  In 1950, Will and Lily Dale just couldn’t face it.  Today, we are more open in our society and can face it differently if we choose to do so.

The play doesn’t say how Etta Doris feels about homosexuality or what she thinks.  It doesn’t say exactly what was stated in the newspaper article she read about the circumstances of Bill’s death.  But surely she has heard the rumors about Bill’s death being a suicide.  Yet it seems none of this matters to her.  What does matter is that she remembers the loving human being she knew and she makes considerable effort to get to the home of Will and Lily Dale to remind them of the jewel of a son they had.

She reminds the family that no matter what the gossips say, their son was sweet and loving.  She confirms that he continued in that way in spite of whatever tribulations he faced in his adult life.  He stayed true to his sweet, kind, loving nature which they nurtured in him.  She seems to be telling Will to remember him that way.

Etta Doris also reminds us all to focus on the beauty of people we encounter throughout our lives.  A lesson I hope to practice on a daily basis.


Eva Abram is a Seattle-based actor whose previous stage appearances include Attic Theatre, To Kill A Mockingbird; Lakewood Playhouse, A Raisin in the Sun; the Odd Duck’s Fourplay, and Julius Caesar at Freehold Theatre.

The Young Man from Atlanta runs at Stone Soup Theatre’s DownStage through March 10. Tickets can be purchased at GoldStar and Brown Paper Tickets online, or via telephone at 206.633.1883.


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