Theater / Film

Review: Drink In M Ensemble’s Riveting ‘Bourbon at the Border’

Written By Michelle F. Solomon
April 16, 2024 at 10:44 AM

Jean Hyppolite, Carey Brianna Hart, Charles Reuben, and Dina Lewis in M Ensemble’s production of Pearl Cleage’s “Bourbon at the Border” at the Sandrell Rivers Theater, Miami, through Sunday, April 28. (Photo courtesy of Chasity Hart)

In “Bourbon at the Border,” Atlanta-based playwright Pearl Cleage, the daughter of civil rights activists, brings a piece of history into her 1997 play now being performed at Miami’s M Ensemble through Sunday, April 28.

Her fictional characters were part of the 1964 Freedom Summer project, launched as a voter registration drive in Mississippi, a place where segregation laws and fear tactics were being used to disenfranchise Black voters.  A week after the first group of volunteers arrived, three civil rights workers, one Black and the other two white, were reported missing.

May Thompson (Carey Brianna Hart) and Charlie Thompson (Jean Hyppolite) are bonded by the past and looking for a better future in M Ensemble’s “Bourbon at the Border.” (Photo courtesy of Chasity Hart)

In Cleage’s play, the two main characters, May Thompson (Carey Brianna Hart) and Charles “Charlie” Thompson (Jean Hyppolite) were there, too. May tells her neighbor Rosa St. John (Dina Lewis) that she met Charlie, now her husband, while she was at Howard University, and he was rallying volunteers to go to Mississippi. “Every day at noon, he’d be standing down there on the steps of Douglas Hall talking about how we’d be the sorriest people on this earth if we let a bunch of white kids go down there to register all those Black folks to vote.”

Now it’s 1995, the couple is living in Detroit and May is plumping pillows and pacing waiting for Charlie to return home after months at a mental rehabilitation hospital. She tells Rosa’s boyfriend Tyrone (Charles Reuben) that Charlie is returning home from the hospital for rehab on his leg that “got hurt in Mississippi a long time ago . . .in Freedom Summer. You ever heard of it?” She doesn’t want Tyrone to think Charlie is crazy. (Charlie tells him that himself.)

Charlie Thompson (Jean Hyppolite) toasts with a drink of Jack Daniels to new friend Tyrone (Charles Reuben) as they trade stories. (Photo courtesy of Chasity Hart)

The scars from the couple’s Freedom Summer trip run deep. They dream of moving to Canada to get away from America’s past, that summer that has forever changed each of them. Mitchell Ost’s set design beautifully employs a projection at the upper rear of stage that uses the Ambassador Bridge (which connects Detroit to Windsor, Canada) that can be seen from the couple’s apartment window. It shows the passage of time in the course of the play – daylight at the bridge then lit at night – but also represents the couple’s yearning to escape to a place where they can start fresh. They’ll be desperados, says May, drinking bourbon at the border. It also serves as a  metaphor for May – a bridge of hope that Charlie will crossover from insanity to stability.

Artistic Director André L. Gainey brings out the best in his tightly knit, talented ensemble. While there is plenty of comedy in the first act with Lewis having the lion’s share of the fun and grabbing every juicy moment, Cleage’s play is complicated and needs to be paced just right throughout. It’s how May’s emotionally climatic monologue in the second act can be the most effective.

Carey Brianna Hart as May in a defining moment in M Ensemble’s “Bourbon at the Border” through Sunday, April 28. (Photo courtesy of Chasity Hart)

Gainey moves the action along allowing it to unfold just right and Hart’s portrayal of May is so deeply genuine throughout that when it comes time for her to let the emotions pour out from years of keeping them locked up, there’s visceral and gut-wrenching anguish. The actress, who has performed on stage, as a director, and in so many capacities in South Florida theater, shows here how much she’s grown as she gives an incredibly vulnerable and raw performance – it is riveting.

Hyppolite convincingly makes us feel for his physically and mentally disabled Charlie and how he has forever been changed from the horrific casualties of the Freedom Summer trip. (It would be a spoiler to say more about the atrocities the couple faced.)

Rosa (Dina Lewis) stops by to make sure Charlie (Jean Hyppolite) is doing fine while his wife, May, is away in M Ensemble’s production of Pearl Cleage’s “Bourbon at the Border.” (Photo courtesy of Chasity Hart)

Charlie tells his wife how “they” tried to separate his head from his heart and soul and says “the only way they win is to make me too crazy to be with you.” Hyppolite makes you, like May, want the freedom fighter to overcome the odds, yet you fear for him that he won’t.

Rueben’s Tyrone, a wounded Vietnam vet, is charming as Rosa’s love interest, but uses depth of character to convey that his Tyrone understands Charlie – the two have much in common although they fought different “wars.” It’s an undercurrent that plays beautifully.

Tyrone Washington (Charles Reuben) and Rosa St. John (Dina Lewis) get ready to head out on a date. (Photo courtesy of Chasity Hart)

And Lewis as May’s best friend is so rightly cast as the comic relief, especially when she recreates her audition as a sex phone worker. Yet, the actress also knows when she needs to stay in the moment. Watching Lewis during Hart’s monologue, as Rosa, she never takes her eyes off of May for a minute and you feel as if she is hearing the story for the first time. It just adds to the intensity and another fine moment of the investment needed to make these characters so real.

Dina Lewis as Rosa can’t believe what she’s hearing as May (Carey Brianna Hart) recounts what happened to her during Freedom Summer. (Photo courtesy of Chasity Hart)

The soundtrack for the show has familiar pop hits from the era and Gainey makes the choice in some scenes to have music play in the background. It helps to break up Cleage’s scenes with so many two-person dialogues and keeps them from seeming repetitive. Whether it was a mistaken sound cue or a purposeful placement, music immediately comes in at the end of the play, which lessens the impact of the final emotional moment.

Given that voters in certain states in the 2024 presidential election will encounter stricter ID requirements when they head to the polls as part of a wave of in-person voter ID laws enacted across the country during the last four years — laws that will probably work to disenfranchise many minority voters  — this play recalling the Freedom Summer struggle for voting rights is, unfortunately in this day and age, timely.

May (Carey Brianna Hart), right, shows her friend Rosa (Dina Lewis) pictures from the past. (Photo courtesy of Chasity Hart)

With a powerful script and a director and his actors who show an understanding of the stakes that Cleage wants to get across to her audience, M Ensemble’s “Bourbon at the Border” will give you pause to think about the ills of the past, a divided America in the present, and what’s in store for the future.

WHAT: “Bourbon at the Border” by Pearl Cleage

WHERE: M Ensemble at the Sandrell Rivers Theater, 6103 NW 7th Ave., Miami.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Through April 28.

COST: $36 plus $4.25 fee. 2 for 1 tickets, $18 plus $3.05 fee each through April 19 (must purchase 2)

INFORMATION: 305-705-3210 or is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music, and more. Don’t miss a story at

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