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'The Resurrection of Alice' Explores Arranged Marriages

Margaret Summers | 9/6/2013, 1:47 a.m.
Perri Gaffney's character "Alice" has a lot to cry about when she's forced to give up college to marry a man whom she hates but is supporting her parents and siblings in the play, "The Resurrection of Alice." (Orville Hector/The Essential Theatre)

The practice of “arranged” marriages is ancient. Families “promise” a daughter, often a pre-teen or younger, to a much older, prosperous man, provided that he pays for her, either by economically supporting her family, or by paying a “bride price” to compensate for the loss to the family of the girl’s household labor.

Today in the 21st century, there are still areas in Africa, Asia, India and the Middle East that force young girls into marital arrangements without their consent or agreement. The play, “The Resurrection of Alice,” currently staged by the District-based Essential Theatre’s Women’s Works Program, highlights arranged marriages that have taken place in African-American families.

“I think the topic remains pertinent and important on a global level,” wrote Perri Gaffney, author of the play, and a novel on which the play is based. Both were inspired by a true story.

“The difference in what African Americans used to practice and what has always been done is, in America the bride’s price was paid years before there ever was a wedding,” wrote Gaffney. “If the old man married someone else before the young girl grew up, or if the old man died, or if the old man lost his fortune before he married the young girl, the wedding was off, and nothing was owed to the prospective husband, even though he had been paying [for the girl] for years.”

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio and currently a New York resident, Gaffney successfully portrayed each character in the one-person show. The play begins in 1939, and Gaffney portrays Alice as a child, cheerfully oblivious to the poverty under which she and her family live in South Carolina. Their dilapidated shack is so cold in the winter that Alice and her siblings perform jumping jacks and other exercises to feel warm. The children’s “job” is to stuff old newspapers and rags in the cracks of the shack’s walls to block the cold air. The family lives on oatmeal and “sugar tits,” a rag soaked in sugar water. “When there’s no sugar to put on the rag we pretend we’re sucking sugar out of it anyway,” says Alice.

Along comes Luther Tucker, an old man whose ownership of a local mill made him the town’s richest “colored.” As he becomes attracted to the underage Alice, the family’s fortunes undergo radical change. Alice’s father gets a job in Tucker’s mill. The family diet evolves from oatmeal and “sugar tits” to the occasional cow tongue. “We were eating like it was Sunday!” exclaims Alice.

In high school, Alice falls for Isaac, who teaches her about African-American poets, and urges her to go to college. Isaac heads for the District and Howard University. Alice learns from a college admissions letter that she has been awarded a full scholarship. “You’re not going,” says her mother. “Why not?” Alice asks. Her mother answers nervously, “Because you’re marrying Mr. Tucker.”

Trapped in a marriage she never wanted, Alice resists. She refuses to be intimate with Tucker, and bears their first child, a daughter, only after having a few drinks to “get it over with” and prevent Tucker from punishing her parents. Their second child is also a girl, disappointing Tucker who only wants sons. When Alice’s third child is a boy, it’s by Isaac, with whom she reunites in Cleveland, after Tucker relocates his family there.