Supper Table Spotlight: Qiana Whitted and Annette Dees Grevious

We’re featuring the artists from the Supper Table project throughout the summer. This is the 20th in our series on Supper Table Artists

Qiana Whitted - photo Michael Danzler

Qiana Whitted - photo Michael Danzler

Known by Martin Luther King Jr. as “The Mother of the Movement,” Septima Clark was an educator and civil rights activist who spent her life fighting for literacy and equality for black Americans. Two Supper Table artists had the task of speaking life into Clark’s story, one through written word and the other through spoken.

Qiana Whitted is the literary artist who wrote a non-fiction literary essay about Septima Clark’s life. Whitted is the Director of the African American Studies Program at the University of South Carolina. Her research focuses on African-American literary and cultural studies, American comics, and graphic novels. Her recent book, EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest, explores representations of race and racism. She is also the author of “A God of Justice?”: The Problem of Evil in Twentieth-Century Black Literature and co-editor of Comics and the U.S. South. Additionally, Whitted is editor of Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society and chair of the International Comic Arts Forum. She is the mother of two children, Naima and Alex.

The following is an excerpt from her essay:

Clark began her career during World War I on Johns Island at a school with over 130 students. Miss Seppie, as the Gullah folk called her, would go on to teach across the Carolinas, from rural classrooms in Mars Hill and McClellanville to Avery Normal Institute in Charleston and Booker T. Washington School in Columbia. After school hours and on weekends, Clark turned her attention to the needs of her students’ parents and grandparents. She helped local residents to write letters and speeches, fill out applications and mail-order forms, and organize sewing circles, immunization drives, and handwriting clinics. While her own training at Avery emphasized a pedagogy that embraced racial uplift ideology and respectability as core values, those early years as a teacher challenged her assumptions about the realities of social and economic inequality and demanded from her a different kind of resourcefulness. Clark gained a profound appreciation for adult literacy training, deploying what historian Katherine Mellen Charron calls “educational camouflage” to transform classroom basics into acts of recognition and resistance against white supremacy. Clark’s experience on Johns Island sowed the seeds for the Citizenship Schools, a grassroots educational initiative in the South that combined practical literacy with voter registration, civics instruction, and community action.

It was Clark’s advocacy on behalf of students and teachers that transformed her into a freedom fighter. Her first steps included taking part in the NAACP campaign to allow black teachers to be hired in Charleston’s public schools. Canvassing door to door with fellow teachers, and even a few sixth-graders, Clark tirelessly gathered signatures for the successful petition. She was inspired by black women activist educators such as Mary McLeod Bethune to expand her reach within teachers’ associations and women’s clubs during the 1930s. She helped to integrate the central board of Charleston’s YWCA and made a point to forge relationships with white-led civic organizations that focused on school reform and health promotion. When it came to education for citizenship, Clark was concerned by the way many Progressive era initiatives encouraged students to exercise their rights without disrupting the status quo of segregation. Therefore, when given the opportunity to develop her own curriculum, Clark modeled her endeavors after local education reformers such as Wil Lou Gray and Booker T. Washington’s principal, C.A. Johnson. She listened closely to the needs of black adult learners, respected their experiential knowledge, and nurtured their aspirations, whether they required help reading the newspaper or understanding election laws.

Annette Dees Grevious

Annette Dees Grevious

Embodying these words in the Supper Table theatrical performance is Annette Dees Grevious. Grevious is an Associate of Professor of Speech and Drama at Claflin University, where she has served as Theatre Program Coordinator and Director of the Theatre Ensemble for 17 years. She received an MFA in Theatre Performance from the University of Louisville and a BA in Theatre from Brenau University. Grevious has been performing professionally for more than two decades. She has performed with and on the following South Carolina theatre companies and stages: Trustus Theatre, Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, Inc., and Motion FilmWorks.

Septima Clark is a name full of such power yet a name so little known. In her performance, Grevious hopes to not only represent the struggles and success of Clark’s life but tell her story in a way that will ensure no one forgets her name again.

To read the rest of Whitted’s essay, located in our book Setting the Supper Table, and to see Grevious’ performance of Septima Clark, come to one of our opening events on either September 6th at Trustus (almost gone!) or September 8th at Harbison.


 -Christina Xan


"By The Way, Meet Vera Stark" - a review of the new show at Trustus

Trustus Theatre's new production of Lynne Nottage's play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark tackles an odd paradox from early Hollywood: talented actors of color were finding professional success on screen in mainstream films that starred white performers, but most commonly were cast as maids, slaves, "mammies," and other stereotypical roles. Hattie McDaniel, for example, broke the color barrier when she won the Oscar, but still she played a servant, not a teacher, mother, or romantic lead. Employing a dizzying array of narrative and dramatic techniques, Nottage traces the career of the fictional Vera Stark (Michelle Jacobs), an aspiring African-American actress in the early '30's who works by day as a maid for the frivolous Gloria Mitchell (Katie Mixon), a Mary Pickford-like starlet famed as "America's Little Sweetie Pie." Advance press material notwithstanding, Vera Stark is neither a screwball comedy (although it is sometimes funny, if perhaps not hilarious) nor a riff on Gone With the Wind (although Mixon sometimes channels the breathless drawls of Vivian Leigh and Olivia de Havilland.)  Gloria is desperate to land the lead in The Belle of New Orleans, a weepy film melodrama that draws from classics like Camille and Dion Boucicault's The Octaroon. That term, by the way, turns up frequently: it's a 19th-century term for a person with one-eighth black heritage, who would still have been classified as a slave. (A mixed-race friend of mine once laughingly used that term to describe herself, and later a co-worker asked "What did you say you were again?  A Macaroon?")


Vera, clearly a close friend, confidante and sister-figure for her scatterbrained employer, wants a shot at playing the “Belle's” maid, an actual dramatic role with lines beyond "Yes, ma'am." In moments that define the play's central issues, Vera and roommate Lottie (Annette Dees Grevious) discuss the inherent irony of Vera's situation; these conversations, and scenes where Vera flirts with ambitious, driven jazz musician Leroy (an earnest and smooth Jabar Hankins) could be excerpts from a good August Wilson drama set in the 1930's. Strangely, however, different scenes and different characters in the first act are written in drastically, sometimes jarringly different styles. When Jacobs and Grevious banter with Janell Bryant (as their saucy friend Anna Mae, who intends to find stardom via affairs with white producers and directors who think she's Brazilian) the mood lightens, and the laughs come fast and furious, in the vein of socially-conscious comedies from the '70's like Good Times.  Hollywood types turn up: Bobby Bloom as a no-nonsense producer who could be from a realistic 1940's drama, and Clint Poston as an idealistic director, clearly an Otto Preminger figure, but as broadly comic as if Franz Liebkind's accent and Roger DeBris's flamboyance were taken from The Producers and morphed into a single character.  Bloom's studio exec, by the way, could easily have been one-note, and played by an older man, simply a quasher of any projects that won't sell at the box office. The youthful Bloom gives a remarkably three-dimensional performance, proving that there are no small roles, only small actors.  With the simplest of tools - suspenders instead of a belt, hair parted a certain way, a cigar held like Bogart, wire-rimmed glasses, assertive body language - he perfectly conveys an Irving Thalberg-like visionary, who wants to give audiences a brief escape from the grim realities of the Depression.

Mixon, meanwhile, dives into the role of the vodka-fueled Gloria with as much gleeful abandon as she dove into that quiche a few months ago in the Side Door Theatre, flamboyantly vamping like Lydia Languish or other 17th and 18th-century heroines of classic farce. When all these characters are on stage together, the show comes closest to capturing the spirit of a vintage screen comedy, a la Golddiggers of 1933, or How to Marry a Millionaire, with Grevious taking the older, more cynical Lauren Bacall role, Jacobs becoming sweet Betty Grable, and Bryant as the luscious but clueless Marilyn Monroe.  But if these references to obscure shows and characters you may not be familiar with are becoming a little annoying, that to some extent is my point. The author clearly intended this mash-up of genres, and each cast member does just fine, but at times the effect is confusing, as if disparate characters from separate plays all found themselves on stage together.


The storytelling chaos coalesces into something different entirely, however, as Act Two becomes a retelling of, reflection on, and subtle satire of the themes we saw in Act One. Three modern scholars (Grevious, Bryant, and Wela Mbusi) debate the legacy and sociological impact of Stark's life, as we see first a "clip" from The Belle of New Orleans, featuring Gloria, Vera, Lottie, and even "Brazilian Spitfire Anna Fernandez" (i.e. Anna Mae) in the roles that defined their careers, followed by a clip from a 1970's Merv Griffin-style talk show, where we see the older Vera and Gloria reunite. Here director Dewey Scott-Wiley brilliantly captures the differing levels of narrative: we the audience are watching a contemporary academic forum, whose participants are in turn watching a 40-year-old TV clip (acted out live by the performers from within a framed portal;) the talk show guests are in turn watching a film clip from 40 years earlier, the very movie that the characters were obsessing over live on stage in the first act.  Confused?  It actually makes perfect sense, and is a superb payoff to the confusion of Act One. Vera has become a parody of herself, much like the aging Josephine Baker or Eartha Kitt, and we learn that she ended her life soon after this TV appearance, dying young like Dorothy Dandridge, who likewise struggled for mainstream roles in Hollywood.  Leroy turns up as a bitter and defiant Charlie Parker-style burnout, excellently embodied as an older man by Hankins, while Gloria has naturally become a beloved screen goddess of yesteryear.  Scott-Wiley's inventive staging places the live action of the 70's clips behind scrims, eliminating the need for any significant make-up effects, while the 1930's movie was actually filmed in black-and-white by Jason Steelman, and directed by Scott-Wiley.  While it is supposed to be a parody of the era and its cinematic and acting conventions to some extent, the movie-within-the-play is actually pretty decent, with some nice angles, and plenty of attractive shadows, beams of light, and shades of gray.  Bloom doubles as the talk show host, and again manages to create an entirely different character, saying volumes with his pained expression as his interview/reunion devolves into a catfight.

Scott-Wiley doubles as scenic designer, and the art deco-influenced set is serviceable, but looks unfinished. The scrim effects are outstanding in the second act, but really should have been covered up by paintings, tapestry, anything, in the first act. Portions of the stage become particular locales (Vera's apartment, the exterior of the studio, etc.) but little is done to give any sense of change, and the actors' blocking within these smaller areas sometimes seems cramped and constrained. Costumes by Amy Brower expertly define varying eras; a number of characters wear striking creations from La-Ti-Da Jewelry Designs, which are also featured on display in the theatre's bar/gallery area.

Nottage has won just about every award imaginable: Pulitzer, Obie, Guggenheim, even a MacArthur "Genius" grant, but I don't think any were for this play.  The show is enjoyable enough, but never entirely decides what it wants to say, or what kind of play it wants to be. It's never a complete laugh-fest, nor do the more serious moments delve particularly deeply into material ripe for exploration. I also fear that some of the structural madness and much of the very broad comedy in the first act may turn off patrons who expect more from Trustus.  To them I say that the second act is the pay-off, and it's worth the wait. Remember - the venue is called "Trust Us" for a reason.

By The Way, Meet Vera Stark runs through Saturday, May 18th on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus.  Information can be found, and tickets may be purchased online at , or call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 PM at 803-254-9732.  And you can read James Harley's review of the production at Onstage Columbia and at the Free Times.

~ August Krickel