A white, Jewish college student tries to join an African-American sorority, with disastrous results in the new play “The Daughters of the Kush,” now onstage at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood. The action takes place in 1963, on the cusp of the civil rights movement, and ultimately raises moral questions about group loyalty versus honesty.
The play begins with a prologue in which a Black campus police officer (Mark Miles) at Plains University, a predominantly white school in Iowa, questions three members of Kappa Lambda Nu, a Black sorority colloquially referred to as the Kush, after the enigmatic death of a white pledge, Kathy Greenberg Battle (Hannah Mae Sturges). The three coeds questioned give misleading answers.
Playwright George Corbin said the idea for his story came from events surrounding the 2002 drowning deaths during the hazing of two Black pledges to Alpha Kappa Alpha, an African-American sorority, at Cal State Los Angeles.
“That didn’t, in itself, trigger my thoughts about writing a play,” he said, pointing to “an article in the newspaper where a police detective was describing how difficult it was to crack these sorority members. He said he dealt with hardened gang members all the time and trying to get them to reveal information, this type of thing, but he felt these women were even more difficult.”
And that reflects what happens in his play.
After the prologue, the story reverts to pledge season, and we meet Brenda (Dee Dee Stephens), the chapter president; Rhonda, the vice president; Clara (Vanoy Burnough), dean of pledges; and Kathy, an “Air Force brat.”
Kathy’s mother died when she was 4, and her father was an enlisted serviceman. “Her confidence, her extroverted personality, is driven partly by her unique background, namely being raised from [age] 13 by adoptive Black parents on an Air Force base. Her father had passed away and was the best friend of her adoptive father,” Corbin said. “She identifies more with the Black culture, and she wants to honor her [adoptive] mother, who is a member of that sorority, by surprising her and joining.”
Corbin, who is African-American, explained that he decided to make Kathy Jewish partly because he dated a Jewish girl when he was a freshman at Penn State in the 1960s. In addition, he said, “I started thinking it would be thoroughly natural, especially during the civil rights era, with many Jewish-American citizens fighting and putting their lives on line in the South, registering Blacks to vote.”
During the course of the play, there is talk of racial issues among the Black coeds. But Kathy’s religion and race don’t seem to be stumbling blocks to her pledging until Clara uses Kathy’s race against her out of envy over Kathy’s relationship with a white assistant track and field coach whom Clara wants for herself.
According to Corbin, Clara is beset by devils.
“She has issues unresolved that bubble up and affect the play, mainly her (light) skin color, reflecting the shock when she found out in her late teens her father wasn’t really her father,” he said. “She had a white father whom she tracked down, and he rejected her. And that’s part of what’s roiling inside of her, and when she’s rejected later by the coach, who is white, that really lights a fire. And she conflates issues of protecting the sorority and blackness with her own internal feelings of rejection, anger, rage, which causes the sorority to end up in a very bad place.”
There is a heated confrontation between Clara and Kathy, resulting in Kathy’s death. Clara, Brenda and Rhonda decide to do everything they can to protect their sorority from scandal and possible legal action, much as the coeds did in the real-life 2002 drowning case.
For Corbin, the questionable morality of their decision is at the heart of his story.
“I wanted my play not to be a simple play,” he said.
“The best of us, the best of organizations, for the best reason, can be hijacked by one individual with power. And that’s where you need antennae. That’s when your antennae should go up and you should question — what would I do? Would I do the right thing in that circumstance?”
“The Daughters of the Kush” runs through Oct. 29 at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., second floor. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, call (805) 496-2982 or visit eventbrite.com.