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Theatre Review by Kimberly Ramírez - October 26, 2023

Drew Lewis and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
There is no mention of the title word anywhere in the play currently running at Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST), but playwright Brittany K. Allen called it Redwood "after the oldest, most resilient tree in the country." The metaphor manifests through the enduring strength of an African-American family whose complicated history stands rooted at the center of this captivating drama. Allen, however, intends Redwood to be a comedy–and it is, as much as a play exploring slavery, institutionalized racism, colonial guilt, and ancestral DNA can be.

The laughs begin at the top of the show, when charming, charismatic Stevie Durbin (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) composes a monologue-style email to his relatives during a hip hop gym workout. He is trying to convince his twin sister Beverly (Portia) and other kin to swab their cheeks, register with, and determine their family tree. It is the first of several direct addresses Stevie delivers to the audience as if he is emailing instead of exercising–an amusing conceit that keeps narrative exposition active and within the world of the play.

When family members dismiss his genealogical research, Stevie meets an online DNA match, Drew Tatum (Drew Lewis), at a local coffee shop. But this distant white relative can't bear to learn that his ancestors once owned Stevie's ancestors as slaves. The conflict intensifies when it is revealed that Drew, by sheer coincidence, just moved in with Stevie's niece Meg (played by playwright Brittany K. Allen). Past and present personas collide as Stevie, Beverly, Drew, and Meg become haunted by a shapeshifting ensemble. Strategic role-doubling serves to dramatize a six-generation overlay as the family recovers history, honors legacy, and confronts kindred souls and spirits.

If audiences buy the contrivance of the first major plot reversal–that Meg and Drew just happen to move in together when Stevie stumbles upon their shared lineage–spectators may still find it difficult to invest in the young couple's compromised relationship. Disparate acting styles impose a disconnect with Allen indicating Meg through shrill upspeak, exaggerated inflections, and over-emotive facial expressions in stark contrast to Lewis's naturalistic approach to Drew. They seem to inhabit different theatrical worlds that never quite align to create any convincing chemistry. Still, a heartwarming harmony seems possible when Drew's stepmother Hattie (Kate Siahaan-Rigg) offers advice based on her interracial marriage with Drew's father Tatum. Though Hattie addresses stereotypes, the character portrayal verges on several; accented English appears played for comedic effect while she nurses her husband's gout and sips from a ceramic pineapple mug.

Clever costumes by Mika Eubanks help distinguish different time periods and choral roles. For instance, a "certified zumba modern and hip hop dance technician" (Eric R. Williams) exchanges their "Planet Thickness" muscle shirt for a nineteenth century style jacket and tie when transforming into an ancestor. An ingenious breakaway costume for the patriarch Tatum (Denny Dale Bess) permits a curious quick-change from Antebellum slave owner into his own modern-day descendant, a typical Florida retiree. Stevie is superbly outfitted in eye-catching, eclectic ensembles, often with a subtle sparkle from a glittery belt or shimmering hat band, accentuating the way that Henderson's lithe figure glides through scenes as a glorious, guiding force.

The action is framed by a simple two-wall corner set wallpapered with a monotonous green plant pattern (scenic design by Ao Li), a heavy-handed reference to leaves of the Redwood or family tree. The environment darkens (lighting design by Betsy Chester and Stacey Derosier) as the setting surrenders to a brilliant gallery of ancestral portraits. An enormous assemblage of kitchen cabinets and drawers serve as awkward storage for sundry props while modular benches are constantly configured to suggest a dozen different settings.

The frequent scene changes involve multiple layers of simultaneous action expertly directed by Mikhaela Mahony with smooth choreography by Sasha Hutchings. Transitions trigger chilling anachronisms, as when courageous matriarchs Beverly and great-great-great-great-great grandmother Alameda (Bryn Carter) stare at one another across realms, or when Alameda gazes at the glow of her own portrait and digital display of DNA data for her descendants. A pantomime of Drew's and Meg's relationship backstory culminates with a smiling Uncle Stevie dancing and waving his large accordion file of ancestral evidence to the beat of the pop song "Feel the Rain on Your Skin." Such unscripted, ironic interludes go a long way to convey the haunting and the humor that Allen intends.

When Stevie finally walks his twin Beverly through the history of their family tree, he warns "if you really let yourself sit with their stories, it's a lot of pain, you know? Cellular pain." Indeed, this play will challenge you to probe the painful pasts of people whose remarkable strength resembles Redwood–but you can also expect to laugh along with fantastic characters whose resilience relies on humor as a survival strategy. It is a comedy, after all.

Through November 12, 2023
The Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST)
545 West 52nd St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: