“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us,” is a bit of wisdom attributed to Alexander Graham Bell. “The Conviction of Lady Lorraine,” written and performed by Dwandra Nickole Lampkin, is evidence of what wonderful things can happen when a driven, curious and inventive artist, amid a dream project, gets told no.
Currently in production at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo as part of its Spotlight Series, directed by Lofty Durham, Lampkin’s 70-minute one-woman show tells the story of an actress who becomes obsessed with the decades-long one-woman protester at the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder in Memphis. The former Lorraine Motel employee and tenant rejected the entanglement of MLK’s legacy with his death rather than his practices and principles in the National Civil Rights Museum as well as the gentrification of the neighborhood.
Dee Dee, the character Lampkin plays, admires the woman for her unwavering conviction and steadfastness, sees her as “a living, breathing monument,” and felt “touched by something higher” by the encounter with her.
The narrative is framed by Dee Dee’s mission: to get Lady Lorraine’s permission to tell her story. And Dee Dee’s internal monologue becomes externalized for the audience as she remembers and recreates the scenes of her coming of age as an artist and a black woman in America.
Dee Dee’s journey looks a lot like Lampkin’s. Now an Associate Professor of Acting at Western Michigan University, Lampkin first encountered the real-life one-woman protester — who is never named in the play — in Memphis in 2009, and three months later began researching and writing what would become “The Conviction of Lady Lorraine,” despite not receiving the main character’s permission to tell her story. In the process, both Lampkin (and therefore Dee Dee) came to the realization that it was actually her own story she needed permission to tell.
It’s an impassioned, funny and touching story, and Lampkin is a performer who seems to effortlessly capture an audience’s attention from the first moment she enters the space until the moment she takes a bow. Her presence is warm and her talent and empathy great — she fluidly shifts from small child to old woman to middle-aged man and between various ethnic and regional accents seamlessly. She joyfully pokes fun at herself and others while also making important larger critiques of racial injustices in and out of the theater. “Who tells the story really does matter,” she proclaims righteously, in a powerful argument about the problems inherent in “colorblind casting.”
Lampkin clearly creates the multidimensional and utterly convincing story she set out to tell, though it isn’t the one she originally wanted. With very little technical assistance — some carefully chosen light shifts to delineate scene changes, as well as useful and often funny sound cues — she embodies a character so convicted and a story so richly inventive, there’s no doubt it’s one she was born to tell. Thankfully, she not only saw the door that opened, but she walked right through, and having done so, inspires others to do the same.
The Conviction of Lady Lorraine
Farmers Alley Theatre