MARK BENNETT: A story of resilience, joy, overcoming injustices

Courtesy Connie DawsonDepicting playwright’s story: Terre Haute actress Kimberly McMurray portrays playwright Charlayne Woodard in the Theater 7 production of “Pretty Fire.” The five-part play examines life in the 1950s and ‘60s for an African-American woman.

A mother tries to explain a hurtful comment to an innocent child. It’s a scenario almost any caring parent understands.

Terre Haute actress Kimberly McMurray appreciates the universal humanity present in that scene from the play “Pretty Fire,” performed in 7:30 p.m. shows today and Saturday at the Terre Haute Brewing Co. McMurray portrays playwright Charlayne Woodard, who tells her story of growing up as a female of color in the 1950s and ’60s.

The scene recounts Charlayne coming home from school as a third-grader, upset about a word she was called by a new friend. Her mother tries to strengthen and encourage her confused daughter, rather than let the word — a racial slur — break the girl’s spirits.

While the mother-daughter anguish specifically deals with racial injustice, parents of other backgrounds can relate to the moment, too. “This is bigger than just a black-white issue,” McMurray said.

“Children of all backgrounds and all races and all ethnicities are being taunted in schools,” she added. “That’s heart-wrenching for any adult in the position of protecting and nurturing that child.”

Such shared human understanding bonds the audience with the characters in “Pretty Fire” as the five-part story moves through the discrimination and oppression experienced by African-Americans in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The story written in the early 1990s by Woodard, an actress and playwright born in Albany, N.Y., includes a vignette about visits to her grandparents’ home in Georgia. There, as an innocent 8-year-old looking through her grandparents’ window, she witnesses a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning, not understanding the act of hatred.

Yet, “Pretty Fire” features a prevailing sense of strength and resilience in Charlayne, other African-American women and fellow women in general. During the play’s opening last weekend, a tearful, older white woman told McMurray afterward, “I found myself in each one of the [play’s vignettes].” It’s an uplifting story that Theater 7 — a professional, Terre Haute-based theater company — expanded from its original one-woman format to a full cast of actors. McMurray fills the lead role in play after performing in supporting roles in Theater 7’s earlier productions of “Spunk” and “Death of a Salesman.” The 41-year-old Indianapolis native has been active in local theatrical circles, including Community Theatre of Terre Haute, since moving to Terre Haute eight years ago.

In “Pretty Fire,” McMurray not only plays the central character but also serves as associate director, along side director Cliff Lambert. “Her artistic signature is on every aspect of this play,” he explained.

McMurray sees “Pretty Fire” as inspirational, as well as timely, playing back-to-back weekends during Black History Month. “This one never leaves you in a down place,” she said. “There’s always a strength, a hope.”

Even the moments of heartbreak reflect courage, McMurray said. The scene in which the young girl is consoled by her mother following the school incident is a prime example. The mother “turns this into such a powerful teaching moment. ... She tells her, just because someone calls you this, that doesn’t make it who you are,” McMurray said.

Hatred and racial injustices didn’t end in the 1950s and ‘60s, of course. “A lot of the issues [Woodard] faced are ridiculously still relevant,” McMurray said. People of a variety of backgrounds experience injustices, still. “Pretty Fire” delivers a positive message, reminding audiences, “We have to be careful, number one, not to generalize others and, number two, not to let others generalize who we are,” McMurray said.

That’s the play’s takeaway for theatergoers. Its final act is titled “Joy.” “And that’s what you feel when you leave,” McMurray said. 

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

To see ‘Pretty Fire’

• What: Play based on playwright Charlayne Woodward’s youth.

• Who: Performed by Terre Haute’s professional theater company, Theater 7.

• When: 7:30 p.m. tonight, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

• Where: Velvet Room, Terre Haute Brewing Co., at 401 S. Ninth St.

• Tickets: Cost $18 each for general admission. $1 from each ticket sold goes to 14th and Chestnut Community Center. Tickets available at Hulman Center Box Office or at the Terre Haute Brewing Co. one hour before the performances.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.