The house in “Feeding Beatrice” groans. It rattles. The water pipes whine. And there’s a very secret horror hiding in the floor.
It’s not a friendly place, as its new owners June and Lurie soon discover. But the suburban fixer-upper makes a fine setting for the spine-tingling — and at times very funny — play “Feeding Beatrice: A Gothic Tale” by Kirsten Greenidge, coming from Forward Theater Company Nov. 3-20 to the Playhouse at the Overture Center for the Arts.
June and Lurie, played by Candace Thomas and Jamal James, have been married for six years and ache to become parents. But when they attempt to take an economic and social leap by buying a home in a previously all-white neighborhood, they find the only neighbor willing to visit them is strangely “off” and seems somehow locked in the past.
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Her name is Beatrice, and she always seems to be starving.
Forward Theater is billing the show as a “creepy, dark comedy that evokes the terror of Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ and the suspense of Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho.’”
But “Feeding Beatrice” was actually written in 1999, preceding a recent resurgence in “horror noire,” works from Black creators like Peele, said Forward artistic director Jen Uphoff Gray, who is also directing this latest production.
Playwright Greenidge has since won an Obie Award for her 2011 play “Milk Like Sugar,” and continues to focus on themes of race, class and gender. In “Feeding Beatrice,” the writer created an “evocative, entertaining evening of theater,” said Gray, “but married that with a really intense and deep examination of, one could say, the most profound thing that haunts America — and that’s racism.”
The ghost in the story comes from an age of redlining — is there a reason that June and Lurie are the only African-American couple in their new suburban neighborhood? — and de facto segregation.
But it’s still a very charmingly chilling ghost, no question about that. A ghost that makes life uneasy.
“In the larger framework, Kirsten (Greenidge) is recognizing how the past in many ways sort of haunts the present,” said Khalid Long, dramaturg for Forward’s production of “Feeding Beatrice” and an assistant professor of theater and African American studies at the University of Georgia.
“But she’s doing it practically — by literally giving us a ghost that haunts the house, and thereby (haunts) the young couple who bought the house,” he said.
“Feeding Beatrice” didn’t get its premiere until 2019, when The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis put it on stage. Reviewers called that production “inventive” and “smartly crafted to work on many complex intellectual levels.”
Of course, it’s still meant to be scary.
“The theatricality of it … is engaging and entertaining,” said Gray. The Forward design team has had fun with the show, she said: Think moody lighting and sound effects that can transport a theater into another realm.
Gray is not necessarily a horror fan, but she’s read a lot and seen a lot of suspense films to prepare for “Feeding Beatrice,” she said. Though filled with foreshadowing and plot twists, “Feeding Beatrice” is built on suspense and not “blood spattering everywhere,” she said.
The cast includes some familiar faces. Jamal James, who plays Lurie, appeared in Forward’s “46 Plays for America’s First Ladies” in 2021 and has been recently seen on the American Players Theatre stage. Both Thomas, who plays June, and Sherrick Robinson, as Lurie’s brother LeRoy, appeared in Forward’s 2018 production of “Skeleton Crew.” Alexandra Salter, who plays Beatrice, is a recent college graduate and “a Milwaukee kid” who “came up through the First Stage Young Company there,” Gray said.
Forward is hosting three free lectures — about horror noire, the history of redlining in Madison, and influential playwright Lorraine Hansberry — to coincide with the Madison run of “Feeding Beatrice.”
And audience members who want to decompress — or just ask questions of some cast members — can stay after most performances for one of Forward’s regular talk-back sections.
“I think our talkbacks will be really, really valuable for a lot of the audiences,” Gray said. “I can imagine a lot of people sticking around for that.”
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