There are myriad backyard stories longing to be told, and People’s Light in Malvern is now telling a terrific one. Mud Row, a world premiere by swiftly rising theater artist (and MacArthur Genius Grant winner) Dominique Morisseau, is a plangent tale of small-town West Chester and its African American community grappling with big-time ideas and events.
The play posits that “we get to know how we got somewhere so we know how to get somewhere else.” With six actors—each in a vivid and memorable performance—Morisseau explores this construct, deftly merging “now” with “then” to explore the pain of multiple disappointments and the longing and lure of ever-present hope. Steve H. Broadnax III has directed this riveting production with clarity, insight, and keen sympathy for people who face both the challenges of segregation and the intricate dance of family legacy.
Geography and generations
Sophisticated Philly-dweller Regine (Nikkole Salter) has unexpectedly and unhappily inherited her grandmother’s rowhouse in the African American section of West Chester, Pennsylvania, known as Mud Row. She and her excited husband Davin (Bjorn DuPaty) visit the house as they plan and prepare to sell it to a developer. It’s been seemingly abandoned for three years, but the couple soon discover that Toshi (Renika Williams) and boyfriend Tyriek (Eric Robinson Jr.) have been squatting there.
The inevitable confrontation between the two couples is inlaid into a years-earlier tale of the foremothers who previously lived there: Elsie (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), a refined striver who planned to move on and up, and her sister, fiery civil-rights activist Frances (Gillian Glasco). This tale—spanning geography and generations—is beautifully and dynamically propelled by these six strong, equally matched actors who are gifted equally strong and balanced characterizations by the playwright.
The action is confined to Michael Carnahan’s entryway and living-room set, which manages to be expansive across generations and yet convey the claustrophobia of neglect and expectation. Multiple shifts in time and place are conveyed by Shilla Benning’s century-spanning clothing design, the sounds of differing historical times (by Curtis Craig), and Kathy Perkins’s lighting, clear or moody as the story requires.
New Play Frontiers at home in PA
Mud Row was born from the New Play Frontiers program at People’s Light, begun in 2012 to create locally inspired scripts. For this development process, playwrights (chosen from a large national pool) come to Malvern, tour neighborhoods, choose an area to write about, and work with community residents and theatrical dramaturgs. It could be anthropologically academic—bringing people here to study the region—but out of the process has come this deeply explored and keenly felt script, the second play in the series to be staged.
Morisseau (a native of Detroit and from a vastly different milieu) writes in her program note, “I want to start by saying I’m not from West Chester.” She worked with the Charles A. Melton Center, which she gratefully acknowledges in the essay. To steep herself in the places and times in Mud Row, telling the tale set “way back when and right now,” the playwright had to grapple with West Chester history, geography, and background. Elsie’s opening monologue is at first heavy on family lore, town details, and expository technique. But stick with it, because Morisseau is soon on to the actions—old and new—that propel a tale so exciting and engrossing that this production’s run has been extended.
People’s Light has decided to treat its audiences to an Americana summer. Their upcoming production is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, that luminescent portrait of life in a fictional small New England town. Mud Row, vastly different in setting and characters, also explores small-town life. But while Wilder’s classic play makes the universal specific, Morisseau has written a contemporary and topical work that makes the specific into a universal experience.
What, When, Where
Mud Row, by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III. Through July 27, 2019 on the Steinbright Stage at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org. Recommended for ages 12 and over due to profanity and racist language. Please note that previously scheduled performances through August 4 were canceled due to a sudden bereavement.
All buildings on the People’s Light campus are ADA-compliant. Accessible parking spaces are available on site. Patrons can purchase wheelchair-accessible seating online or by calling the box office. Complimentary companion seats are available for patrons who require a paid personal-care attendant.