Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Anamnesis
Jungle Theater has resuscitated its production of Redwood after offering a few previews and then shutting down just shy of opening night in March, 2020. The set–a splendid conception by Sarah Bahr–remained in place o'er those twenty-three months. Last fall, Jungle staged the one-actor Every Brilliant Thing within a section of the auditorium and playing to small audiences, at a scale deemed to be safe as COVID-19 continued its siege of the performing arts. Now, Jungle is full-tilt back, true to form, with an engrossing play that gives audiences a lot to think about long after its final image surrenders to darkness.
Set in Baltimore, the play presents Steve, a retired Black man with a zest for life, whose pursuits include a hip-hop class and a dive into his roots. Through Ancestry.com he learns about forbearers enslaved on a Mississippi plantation. One of those, Alameda, was a concubine to the plantation's owner, Master Tatum, and he–Steve–is a descendent of this coupling. Steve's sister Beverly has little patience for her brother's delving into their past and makes sport of his findings, though we come to understand she has her mind on other matters.
Meanwhile, Drew, a doctoral student in physics, recently moved in with Beverly's daughter Meg, a middle-school English teacher. Drew is white. He and Meg seem to have a mutually supportive bond as well as physical attraction. Their biggest issue is Meg's difficulty with breaking the news of their cohabitation to her parents. However, their equilibrium is thrown askew when Drew learns, through Meg's Uncle Steve, that he is a descendent of none other than Master Tatum himself. Drew is horrified! His ancestors kept slaves! His father never told him this. Did he know? And how does he now face Meg?
Of course, both Drew and Meg full well knew the history of Black and white relations in America, and the reality that most African Americans today descended from slaves kept as property by white men. But to know that as a historic truth turns out to be very different from having names and specifics that place themselves as leaves on a twisted family tree. Meg and Drew respond in very different ways to this revelation, casting doubts over what seemed to be a solid relationship. One of the strengths of Allen's play is that, throughout, we never have cause to question their love for one another. We are given the suggestion that love may not be enough to withstand the onslaught of America's torturous history. As Meg considers the prospect of having biracial children with Drew, she shudders "How can I tell them my story when I can't even tell it to myself?"
In spite of the obvious seriousness of the subject, Redwood was considered a comedy–albeit, of a dark nature–when it premiered at Portland Stage in fall 2019. The play remains very funny, with some wonderful quips from all four principal characters, but the three years since it premiered have given us a pandemic that increased our sense of isolation to the breaking point, and a reckoning with racial injustice at the hands of white authority that remains far from resolved. H. Adam Harris directs this production of Redwood with sensitivity to the sea change in our landscape. He allows the humor to bubble up while stressing the humanity of these people who bear the weight of conundrums that remain unsolved centuries after they first took shape.
While the story plays as a straight-forward narrative, Steve's hip-hop class and other attempts at personal development serve as a kind of kinetic Greek chorus, with three fellow students and their instructor, whose gyrations (energetic choreography by Austene Van) glide the transitions from scene to scene. Later, those students take on the persona of the ancestors whose pasts haunt Meg and Drew.
In the end, the most useful insights offered to Meg and Drew come from an unlikely source. This late-in-the-game perspective is welcome, yet also seems too tidy to draw together the fraying cords of their relationship. Still, Meg and Drew have no illusions that the path ahead will be an easy one. At best, in recognizing that every step will be fraught with difficulty, they are better prepared for the journey.
Meg is a challenging character, and China Brickey manages to breathe life into her. Meg's interactions with Drew seem based on putting on one shtick after another, using funny accents and personas that make their relationship a series of sketches. She seems to genuinely love him, yet does not settle into herself when with him. Later, with her mother, Brickey shows Meg's defenses being lowered, revealing the uncertainties beneath her comedic armor. Kevin Fanshaw is a good match as Drew, easily deflecting Meg's shtick at the start, then showing the pain and panic that assault Drew in the light of his family history. Brickey and Fanshaw have a warm rapport that makes their pairing feel believable, even when it falls under siege.
Thomasina Petrus is terrific as Beverly. She convincingly presents someone rooted in the present and bent on avoiding any reflections of the past, a trait that does not always serve her well. On a couple occasions, she opens up in song, offering brief moments to savor the pleasure of Petrus' voice. Bruce A. Young is excellent as Steve, exuding manic energy, with Steve's mind and heart open to exploring both his past and his potential. He also earns our respect as we learn that he describes his own challenges in living an authentic life. Young has the role through February 27. In March, T. Mychael Rambo steps in.
Of Steve's fellow hip-hoppers, Dwight Xaveir Leslie is amusing as an instructor trying to tactfully steer Steve toward more suitable pursuits. Max Wojtanowicz makes an impression as old Master Tatum, though makes a caricature in a bit as Drew's dad. Morgen Chang fares well as Drew's not-as-ditzy-as-she-seems stepmother. Finally, Dana Lee Thompson is a powerful presence as the stalwart Alameda standing up to her master's brutality, a woman whose drive to survive allows no space for sentiment about her legacy.
Trevor Bowen has provided these characters with apt costumes, in particular the stunning wardrobe sported by Steve, demonstrating his eagerness to live life large. Lighting designer Karin Olsen and sound designer Dan Dukich have done fine work that enhances every scene. In every regard, this production has been given exquisite care and attention.
Going back to the titular redwood, with its roots entangled with all the other trees in its grove ... how does such a towering tree trunk stand tall and withstand the elements without deep roots? It must be the sustenance they draw from one another. None of those trees stand alone. Similarly, Allen seems to suggest that human beings are linked by a web of myriad connections, unseen but essential in enabling us to stand tall, even though some of those connected roots carry toxicity. Whether we will forever be impaired by those toxins or, by acknowledging and suctioning them out, able to overcome their effects remains the greatest question facing our nation.
Redwood runs through March 13, 2022, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are on a "pay as you are" basis, $10.00 to $90.00, with suggested market value of $45.00 per ticket. For tickets and information, call 612-822-7073 or visit www.jungletheater.com.
Playwright: Brittany K. Allen; Director: H. Adam Harris; Set Design: Sarah Bahr; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Designer: Dan Dukich; Choreography: Austene Van; Dramaturg from 2020 Production: Morgan Holmes; Assistant Director: Christian Bardin; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Matthew Erkel; Production Manager: Matthew Earley.
Cast: China Brickey (Meg), Morgen Chang (Harriet/Hattie), Kevin Fanshaw (Drew), Dwight Xaveir Leslie (Instructor), Thomasina Petrus (Beverly), T. Mychael Rambo (Uncle Stevie - March 1 - March 13), Dana Lee Thompson (Allie/Alameda), Max Wojtanowicz (Tatum), Bruce A. Young (Uncle Stevie - through February 27).