You might not think the world needed another staging of “Steel Magnolias.” I sure didn’t – that is, not until Colorado Springs’ Theatreworks decided to revisit Robert Harling’s ubiquitous Southern weeper through the lens of Black women.
This is, of course, the beloved story of six hardy “magnolias” who come to Truvy’s Beauty Salon to chat, counsel, criticize and comfort one another through the best and worst of times. It’s pure comfort food, rich with one-liners and nostalgia. It’s a play that has been locally staged approximately 132,576,943 times since 1987 (or maybe it just feels that way. And then there’s that movie.)
But the familiar story became something entirely different when Director Lynne Hastings took the opportunity to re-imagine the very real 1980s White parish in Northwest Louisiana that inspired Harling’s story as, here, an idyllic Black town. One with all of its Southern history and privilege and entitlement and class divisions intact – but here, in the complete absence of Whiteness. Speaking of privilege: The greatest privilege of storytelling is the freedom to create a world of your own choosing – and here, it was thrilling.
“We just made a conscious decision that the world of ‘Steel Magnolias’ existed in a fictional, all-Black town,” said Hastings, a conceit first imagined in a 2012 Lifetime film starring Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad and Alfre Woodard. “And when you live in an all-Black town, all of those other constructs around race simply don’t exist. That means these Black women did not have to hide who they are or be ashamed of who they are – because none of that is an issue in the story.”
Hastings’ staging was moving along nicely as a fascinating glimpse into an alternate reality when, at the story’s climax, it went into a whole new dimension. That’s when veteran Colorado Springs actor Marisa D. Hébert delivered the knockout blow of the theater season.
It came when M’Lynn (think Sally Field) finally drops her steel magnolia and unleashes her pain and anger over the death of her daughter (think Julia Roberts) in front of her friends. It’s the money scene for any actor playing the role. In Hébert’s case, it was the gold standard. And her interpretation was very specific to the experience of a Black mother in full bloom and color.
“Black women grieve differently,” Hastings said “They just do. The mantra of the strong Black woman is so prevalent and weighs so heavily on them to always be strong – especially mothers. Black mothers are always expected to hold others up, so you can’t have your own vulnerability. From the start, the way we saw this: M’Lynn is feeling that duty to be strong for everyone else around her. And when she reaches that point where she can’t do it anymore, she just opens up, and it all comes out.”
It was a magic moment among many magic moments Hébert has delivered over the years – but this was one for the ages.
Hébert was born in Aurora and graduated from Widefield High School in Colorado Springs and the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. She has worked with Vintage Theatre, the Millibo Art Theatre and many more. She took part in the Arvada Center’s post-George Floyd ”Amplify” project because, she said, “Black women have been historically overlooked when it comes to our activism, and our contributions to this country’s shared history.”
She is also an advisory board member for Theatreworks, which is affiliated with CU Colorado Springs, and is one of six founders of the Denver-based IDEA Stages, a grassroots outreach organization that works toward greater inclusion on Colorado stages.
Hastings met a 19-year-old Hébert when they were cast together in a local production of “Pippin.” Since then, Hébert has built an astonishing portfolio as an actor, director and playwright. In 2011, she played a damaged U.S. Marine just home from war. In 2013, she played the Cuban Abuela in “In the Heights.” In 2020, she won a Colorado Theatre Guild Henry Award for playing a fictional maid who communes with MLK on the night before his assassination.
To put it bluntly: “I think Marisa is capable of playing any role written,” Hastings said. “That includes M’Lynn, which a lot of people might not think is a role she should play because she doesn’t look like what we think of as M’Lynn. But she hit it out of the park – just like I knew she would.”
And Hastings knew it from the very first rehearsal.
“Most people might tiptoe up to that last big scene over a few weeks,” Hastings said. “Marisa jumped in feet first and with no fear. She had all of us sobbing the first time she ever did it. She completely surrendered herself to the role, and because she’s so good – that’s what you saw.”
Note: The True West Awards, now in their 23rd year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. Denver Gazette Senior Arts Journalist John Moore celebrates the Colorado theater community by revisiting 30 good stories from the past year without categories or nominations.