Fertile River

Family matriarch Mama Cora (Baadja-Lyne) and her brother Jesse (William Warren) wonder about the state’s plans for young Arthur (Van Brunelle) in the drama “The Fertile River.”

Jeff Faber photo

First appearances can be deceiving in Vincent Terrell Durham’s play “The Fertile River,” beginning with the title: It’s not about a geographic feature or its agricultural value.

River is a name and her presence in a family line drives the story’s drama, which will be staged for two performances this weekend at Baylor University’s Mabee Theatre in the Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center.

The play begins with a poor black family in 1958 North Carolina receiving a visit from a white social worker from the state.

“Any time an African American family has a visit from a white social worker is a cause for caution and that’s where the narrative takes off,” explained the play’s producer Alton J. Patton III. “In that time, a white woman has the power to come in (a home) and take over.”

The woman, Miss Sarah (Nikki McCauley), wants to talk with family head Mama Cora (Baadja-Lyne) and her brother Uncle Jesse (William Warren) about Cora’s granddaughter River (Faith Imafidon). River is intellectually challenged, which has brought her to the attention of the state’s Eugenics Board, for whom Miss Sarah is working.

Miss Sarah’s visit is to have River sterilized so her mental deficiency isn’t passed on to any children, who might become wards of the state or have children with a similar condition. That’s in the best interests of North Carolina, she believes — it’s also state law.

The social worker delicately tries to frame her argument to Cora, who knows a secret wrinkle to the story: River already has a child, 9-year-old Arthur (Van Brunelle), and he’s exceptionally smart, a prodigy whose promising future carries the family’s hopes of escaping their poverty.

Part of “The Fertile River’s” power lies in its historical roots: North Carolina’s Eugenics Board oversaw an estimated 7,500 forced sterilizations in its 44 years before it was abolished in 1977.

“I got a call a couple of years ago to read this script by Vincent Terrell Durham and, it was clear to me, it was extraordinary,” recalled Patton, a 1994 Baylor University graduate in political science and Asian Studies.

Patton, a Hollywood-based television and radio producer and host for the Lilal Network, took it upon himself to bring the play to life and expose it to a wider audience. “The Fertile River” made its stage debut at the ACME Hollywood Theatre last October. A spring meeting with interim Baylor President David Garland led to discussions with Baylor theater arts chairman Stan Denman, Patton said, and Baylor agreed to host performances by Patton’s company.

The production, directed by Elizabeth Bell-Haynes, features the original cast except for the role of River, with Faith Imafidon replacing Sola Bamis. An audience discussion time will follow each performance.

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor