‘Spit Like a Big Girl’
Easy Reader - Theater Review
by Nate Lee
The South is America’s place for stories. It’s always been a place that, particularly in the heritage of Scotch-Irish Appalachia, reveres its words, its stories and its storytellers. Southern writers, black and white, enjoy a prestige wrought from this heritage that no other American locale affords.
In her one-person play, “Spit Like a Big Girl,” Clarinda Ross more than lives up to her heritage. A professional actor and a genetic storyteller, Ross doesn’t just tell the story of growing up in Boone, North Carolina, with two college professors as parents, and herself as the parent of a mentally handicapped child. Her story is also about storytelling, itself; it’s about inheriting storytelling along with the kind of personality that makes for good stories.
Her daddy, Carl (no matter their age, true Southern girls call their fathers “daddy”), “an educated redneck” and chairman of the Appalachian Studies Department at Appalachian State University, kept journals. When he died in his fifties, Ross discovered the writings and, inspired by them, started her own journals.
The title comes from a seemingly typical journal entry when Ross was teaching her daughter, Clara, to brush her teeth and spit into the sink. But, of course, it resonates throughout the entire play and defines Clarinda. Again, from her heritage, she embodies big-girl “spit,” meaning tenacity, character, gumption – the red-haired, Southern variety.
In one magnificent scene, high on a platform, she portrays a flying angel looking for the right kind of person to “deliver” such a task as a mentally handicapped child. The angel passes up many houses commenting how the person inside couldn’t handle it. Then the angel spies Clarinda. The angel is correct, of course. In several entertaining yet poignant scenes, Ross portrays the spit it takes to get through to medical receptionists as well as the doctors they protect, challenging them to do their jobs and help Clara.
In particular, Ross’s story of taking Clara to the dentist – even the most seemingly advanced dentistry for such children, at UCLA – is so well told, it’s horrifying. Those who hear it would never again complain about their own experiences in the chair.
Ross keeps her audience close, and moves them not just with the stuff of her harrowing trials, but with the deftness of her portrayals of the key players. With director Stephanie Coltrin, Ross wisely chooses which of her many characters to emphasize with practiced mimicry – and with practiced voice. Throughout is a beautiful, enjoyable Southern accent, from a storyteller who treats vowels the way their inventors intended. It works in juxtaposition to that fiery determination, charming not only the receptionists but the audience as well.
When you go, and you should, at intermission take an up-close look at the stage. In Christopher Beyries’ design, paths connect the various areas, and those paths are made of actual pages from Carl Ross’s journal. This is now Clarinda Ross’s path, the path that has led to this play.