ORANGE LIGHT by Howard L. Craft

I’ve always loved didactic fiction, from Steinbek’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH to Norris’s THE OCTOPUS to Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE. Howard Craft’s new play, ORANGE LIGHT, falls squarely in this tradition, and with the support of director Joseph Megel, the music of Rissi Palmer, and an outstanding ensemble cast, it makes for a riveting, wrenchingly emotional evening of theater.

Based on the deadly 1991 fire at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, the play is framed as a series of interviews for a video documentary–a modern medium deconstructed into the timeless form of live performance. Craft chose to use women actors exclusively (playing both male and female roles), to emphasize the disproportionate price that woman pay in the merciless world of predatory capitalism. He also chose fictitious names for the company, its owners, the town, and the workers we meet on stage. In an interview with INDY WEEK, Craft said he intended this choice to make the tragedy more universal, but it also allowed him to dig deep into the personal lives of his characters. In the end, that was the real purpose of this play: to drive home the fact that the 25 people who died and the 55 more who were injured–for no other reason than the greed of the owners–were all human beings, with bills and kids and cars that wouldn’t start, who were paid lousy wages and endured miserable working conditions, all for the crime of being born without a lot of choices.

Since his earliest work (including the stunning THE WISE ONES in 2005), Craft has shown an ability to create deeply human characters that command audience sympathy. Joseph Megel is the perfect director for Craft, having staged some of the best and most powerfully compassionate shows in the Triangle, including Potok’s THE CHOSEN (2004), Jim Grimsley’s WHITE PEOPLE (2005), Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE (2008), and Craft’s CALEB CALYPSO AND THE MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS (2009).

ORANGE LIGHT shines with righteous anger. It is unafraid to place blame or point fingers. But it never loses its head, or its heart.

ORANGE LIGHT runs January 30 – February 16 2020 at the Durham Fruit and Produce Company,

Historical Fiction

CURIOUS TOYS by Elizabeth Hand

I’m not a big fan of serial killer novels, but some books transcend the genre–Thomas Harris’s RED DRAGON, for example, or BIRDMAN and THE TREATMENT by Mo Hayder. To that list add CURIOUS TOYS by Elizabeth Hand, published late last year (2019).

This is historical fiction of the first water, set in the summer of 1915 at Chicago’s Riverview Amusement Park and brought to life with a heady potion of sensory detail, slang, historical context, and sheer bravado that reminded me of Sarah Waters. The relentless August heat, the constant recorded screams from the Hell Gate ride, the miasma of scorched cotton candy and spilled beer, all twist the reader’s nerves to a painful pitch before the action even gets underway.

This is not the musical STATE FAIR, with apple pies and prize pigs and fun for the entire family. This is more NIGHTMARE ALLEY, with the two-faced She-Male, a gruesome film adaptation of Dante’s INFERNO, illicit sex on the dark rides, hashish cigarettes, French postcards, and a fake fortune teller. The main protagonist, 14-year-old Pin, has been masquerading as a boy all summer, relieved to be free from a gender assignment she’s always hated, but equally afraid of being found out.

Pin is not alone in grappling with forbidden physical desires; other tormented characters include a scenario writer for the booming Chicago movie industry, the serial killer himself, and the diminutive, obsessive Henry Darger. Darger is only one of several historical figures in CURIOUS TOYS, but he is clearly one of Hand’s own obsessions. In real life, Darger would go on to become an outsider artist and writer of international reputation. In the novel he functions as a sort of eccentric detective–emphasis on “eccentric”–in a bravura move that would seem a stretch for another writer, but that Hand pulls off elegantly, even movingly.

As she has proved before, most notably in the brilliant GENERATION LOSS, Hand can write the sort of suspense that takes over your life for the duration of the book, and do it with clean, elegant prose. CURIOUS TOYS ups the ante with the sort of thematic echoes that are the province of literature. Various dolls throughout the book connect with each other, and various beholders confuse them with real women, pointing to a kind of universal darkness in the male psyche. Darger’s obsession with little girls closely mirrors that of the killer, as Pin, at the end, mirrors the killer’s victims. The dovetailing of the movie business with the amusement park carries serious weight, as characters repeatedly choose illusion over reality: the killer in his carefully posed photos, the police in their frequent leaps to false conclusions, even, in a positive spin, Pin’s refusal of the trap of her birth gender.

CURIOUS TOYS is a dark ride that throws long shadows.

Contemporary Novels


Celestial and Roy have been married for 18 months when Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to 12 years in prison. It’s a scenario that could happen to anyone in the US, but we all know it’s more likely to happen if you’re black, which Roy happens to be. This undercurrent of racism is all the more distressing because the characters take it so completely for granted (“You don’t have to tell me that,” one of them says. “I’ve been black all my life.”). Yet the political concerns never overwhelm the entirely human stories of the three people who live in the heart of the book: Roy, Celestial, and her lifelong best friend Andre.

The novel begins on the night of the arrest, switches to epistolary mode to quickly cover five years of Roy’s imprisonment, and then takes us moment by moment through the subsequent climactic events. The first-person voices of the three main characters are distinct and compelling–Roy’s gentle but not limitless sense of humor, Celestial’s intensity, Andre’s righteous solidity. (I could have done with fewer TV references, but that’s just me.) All three of them instantly won my sympathy, powerfully enough to stay with them when they each made bad decisions later on. There are plenty of secrets to go around, and a crowd of colorful supporting characters, all of them vivid and believable.

The novel is gripping and funny and sad, but it also tackles big questions head on. What are the various kinds of love and how do you tell them apart? Where does loyalty to yourself begin and loyalty to others end? How much of the burden of injustice must each of us take on? Nothing in AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE is easy, especially the answers to these questions.

The book was a huge critical and commercial success, and deservedly so. It’s got a ripped-from-the-headlines issue, riveting suspense, and timeless human emotions.