The Goodman Theatre opens its 2023/2024 season with The Nacirema Society, written by Pearl Cleage and directed by Lili-Anne Brown. In Montgomery, Alabama in 1964, the Dunbar family prepares for the centennial cotillion of the Nacirema Society, a social club for well-to-do African American women. Under the surface, however, trouble is brewing, and the result is a rip-roaringly funny play that examines social class and the role of history in our everyday lives even as it strikes a lighthearted tone.
Eighteen-year-old Gracie Dunbar is preparing for her debut at the Nacirema Society’s hundredth anniversary ball, although her grandmother and namesake, matriarch Grace Dunbar, is preparing harder. Everything must go perfectly for this splendid, high-society occasion. Of course, several wrenches are quickly thrown into Grace’s carefully-laid plans. For one, the daughter of the family’s former maid, Alpha Campbell Jackson, arrives and attempts to blackmail the family. For another, a reporter with the New York Times who’s writing an article on the ball is staying at the Dunbars’ house, upping the ante on the situation, as any wrong move could lead to a public scandal. Shenanigans ensue as characters communicate and miscommunicate about various situations at play in the Dunbar household, all leading up to a climactic dinner party on the eve of the Nacirema Society ball.
The cast of The Nacirema Society is stellar. E. Faye Butler is phenomenal as Grace, imbuing the strong-willed grandmother with a mix of absurdity and indomitability that make her an absolute delight to watch, from her first lines to her last ones. Ora Jones is also a standout as Grace’s friend Catherine, who loses her head in the midst of all the hullabaloo; Jones’ spot-on physicality ratchets up the humor of the situation perfectly. Shariba Rivers plays the family’s current maid, Jessie, with great aplomb, delivering some of the funniest moments in an overwhelmingly funny show without ever saying a word. Really, though, there isn’t a weak spot anywhere in the ensemble, and if Cleage’s brilliant writing isn’t enough to draw you in, the masterclass in comedic acting should be.
Set design by Arnel Sancianco is breathtakingly lovely; the Dunbars’ home successfully conveys the grandeur of a Southern mansion within the confines of the proscenium. Transitions between the Dunbar household and that of the Campbell Jacksons are as smooth as can be, and the Campbell Jacksons’ kitschy, brightly-colored kitchen creates a stark contrast to the almost exaggerated elegance of the Dunbars’ home. Costumes by Samantha Jones are a visual treat, especially the formalwear, and capture the personalities of the characters well. Lili-Anne Brown’s direction is impeccable, and lighting by Jason Lynch helps keep the storyline crystal clear by indicating which characters can hear which conversations.
The Nacirema Society is a triumph. The script is perfectly balanced and profoundly funny, and the cast and design elements work together to bring this hilarious story to bright and vivid life. If this first play under the artistic direction of Susan V. Booth is an indication of what’s to come for the Goodman Theatre, then the future certainly looks bright.
Dates: September 16-October 15, 2023
Location: The Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street
Tickets: Available now at by calling (312) 443-3800 or visiting the Goodman Theatre website.
All photos by Liz Lauren.