Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Quintessence Theatre Group
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule

Also see Rebeca's review of Describe the Night

Jessica Johnson and Zuhairah McGill
Photo by Linda Johnson
Angelina Weld Grimké wrote Rachel in 1915 as a response to the white supremacist propaganda film Birth of a Nation. As part of its 10th season, Quintessence Theatre Group brings Grimké's powerful work to the Philadelphia stage for the very first time. Under Alexandra Espinoza's deft direction, Rachel is breathtakingly honest, emotionally brutal, and tragically relevant. The entire ensemble is excellent, but powerhouse performances from Zuhairah McGill and Jessica Johnson make this production truly extraordinary.

Rachel Loving (Johnson) is an effervescent teenager living with her mother Mary (McGill) and brother Thomas (Travoye Joyner) in a Northern city in 1916. The family's apartment is not luxurious, but it is warm and inviting. Rachel adores her family and the all young children who live in their building. She talks to her mother about one little boy who has just moved in and her desire to have babies of her own one day, but Mary is clearly distracted. Eventually, Mary reveals that today is the anniversary of the day their father and half-brother were lynched by a white mob in the South. The announcement hits like a lightening bolt, but what eventually drives Rachel mad is not the violence of their past but the indignities that persist no matter how much time or distance passes.

Johnson makes Rachel's dramatic transformations feel not merely believable, but inevitable. In the third act—which is largely unnecessary from a plot perspective—the depth of Johnson's despair is shattering. McGill conveys a sense of quiet dignity and steady strength, even as experience and age wear her down. Travoye is endearing as devoted son and big brother. Walter Deshields' quietly commanding presence is impeccable. It is nearly impossible for an adult to successfully portray a young child, but Nathan Alford-Tate pulls off the feat with guileless charm.

Marie Laster's elegant set design effectively draws the audience close to the Loving family home, but keeps a clear boundary in between. The thoughtful lighting design by Natalie Robin helps to create moments of memorable drama.

Just a few weeks before opening night I finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' 2015 novel "Between the World and Me." Coates describes the angst he feels at the prospect of raising a black child America. His feelings mirror Rachel's sentiments with tragic precision, in spite of the 100 years separating them. Espinoza's powerful production is as much a glimpse into the past as it is a window into the anguish black parents in America still face everyday.

Quintessence Theatre Group's Rachel runs through February 16, 2020, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave., Mt. Airy, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, visit or call 215-987-4450.

Jessica Johnson: Rachel Loving
Zuhairah McGill Mrs. Mary Loving
Travoye Joyner: Thomas Loving
Walter Deshields: John Strong
Niya Colbert: Mrs. Lane
Nathan Alford-Tate: Jimmy Mason
Camiel Warren-Taylor: Ethel Lane/Louise
Donovan Loui Bazemore: Young Jimmy/Matthew

Alexandra Espinoza: Director
Marie Laster: Set Design
Natalie Robin: Lighting Design
Carmel Brown: Costume Design
Daniel Ison: Sound Design