(Almost) every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I sleepily wedge myself into a narrow chair in the SSS auditorium and listen to David Blight discuss the effects of Reconstruction on Southern society. On Wednesday night, however, the podium and Professor Blight’s antiquated magnifying projector disappeared, replaced by eight Compagnia de’Colombari actors, who performed Flannery O’Connor’s apocalyptic comedy “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
It seemed fitting that O’Connor’s timeless and timely piece, which explores racism that persists beyond both emancipation and desegregation, took place in the space where Blight ponders our enduring fascination with the Civil War.
The drama unfolds at a bus stop and then on a bus, as a young man named Julian accompanies his mother to a weight loss session. The mother has a typical mid-twentieth century Southern mindset — a genteel racism, a lingering nostalgia for her father’s antebellum plantation and a desire for social and political stasis. With a setting later rendered iconic by Rosa Parks, the play hinges on the racial tensions that intensify in a claustrophobic space, just as a fly goes mad in a sealed jar. More striking, however, is the generation gap between mother and son that comes to light in the context of said race relations.
Julian, with his “college education” and new-fangled liberalism, is mortified by his mother’s narrow-minded attitude towards integration. Possessing the unique cruelty of a child, he displays a chagrin that borders on violence, and words in his vocabulary like “vicious,” “savage” and “break your spirit” are uncomfortably close to those of a slaveholder. In the end, justice is served to both mother and son, and this is largely because of the play’s final moment, a song conceived by creator Karin Coonrod. Coonrod admitted during the talkback that she has “always struggled with endings” and so, in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” she took the action to a different place. Still, she maintained absolute fidelity to O’Connor’s decision to “not take any prisoners,” and the song neither renders the action more “feel-good” nor detracts from the piece’s biting social commentary.
While the dialogue takes care of itself, any adaptation of fiction to drama presents a unique difficulty — in this play, Coonrod preserves all the narration, which is read aloud verbatim by the actors. In the talkback, she described the formal restrictions of form as a “liberation.” Furthermore, while she bucks the popular trend of race-blind casting, at one point a grown man assumes the role of a four-year-old child, sitting and rocking on the lap of a woman only slightly older than the actor. This scene, which instantly strikes the audience as perverse, interrupts our suspension of disbelief and helps us understand the play’s multifaceted message.
In the talkback, some members of the Compagnia de’Colombari discussed their initial encounters with Flannery O’Connor. One revealed that he stumbled upon her work as a freshman in college and the experience terrified him. Another described a visit to O’Connor’s homestead that included meetings with the writer’s family. For me, also a college freshman unacquainted with O’Connor, the play was proof that everyone has something unique to learn from this prolific, sharp-witted woman whose 90th birthday the world would have celebrated on Wednesday. (And in a way, since the play also took place on Wednesday, that’s exactly what we did.)
“Everything That Rises Must Converge” is a masterfully acted, wonderfully simple experience that delivers powerful lessons for everyone, from ungrateful children to people grappling with changing mores. Since the play only had one showing, you’ll have to tear yourself away from “50 Most” and grab a copy of the book!