Redwood Deals with Challenging Issues of Race and Identity with Humor and Humanity at the Jungle Theater

Thomasina Petrus, Bruce A. Young, Dana Lee Thompson, China Brickey, Kevin Fanshaw. Production Photos by LAUREN B. PHOTOGRAPHY

I don’t know why when I review a show that deals with race I feel compelled to acknowledge that I am a middle aged White Male. First off, if you haven’t seen a photo of me, surely the name says it all. Secondly, should it even matter? Well, I think it does. I think I need to acknowledge upfront that like the non black characters in Redwood, however much I want to empathize and understand, I have to realize I can never really fully do that. I can feel and say “that’s horrible”, but I can never fully relate. So I state that. I say upfront what my perspective is and I offer my thoughts from my point of view. So the following is how this play Redwood, told from the black perspective by playwright Brittany K. Allen and director H. Adam Harris, spoke to me.

Redwood while created from the black perspective is told through the interlocking stories of multiple characters, not all of which are black. There is Uncle Stevie who’s genealogy project/obsession is the catalyst for much of action in the play. He is a “funemployed” middle aged man who fills his time trying different classes at the gym such as hip-hop dance and yoga for pregnant women. We have his twin sister Beverly, whose husband is out of town on business for a suspiciously long time. There is her daughter Meg and her white boyfriend Drew. There are other characters that pop up as well usually for one or two brief but important scenes but these four characters are the ones whose perspective we are invited to view the play through. We hear Stevie’s enthusiastic emails to the family about his newest discoveries and requests for them to share their info and DNA. Beverly and Meg discuss Stevie’s project but don’t really internalize. That is until Stevie reaches out to the white side of the family that branched from the slave owner Tatum. When it’s revealed that Drew is a descendant of Tatum’s as well it causes Meg and Drew problems in their relationship. The plays main theme is inherited trauma, how it affects the way we view the world and can affect our relationships and culture. It also examines the effects of that on interracial relationships.

These are important and powerful issues that Redwood is dealing with. The play could easily have felt like a message or a lesson play but Allen’s script sidesteps that beautifully. The play relies heavily on humor and humanity to explore it’s themes. Yes, we leave the theater with a lot to think about, but while we are in the theater we are entertained by characters that we can relate to. These are characters struggling with how to process information that is hard to internalize. We see them react in real ways, I was struck by how grounded in reality the characters were. There is a subtlety to some of the characterization that makes it real. Beverly describes her husband’s criticism of how she reacts whenever things get serious and we realize that is how her daughter Meg responded in an earlier scene with Drew. It isn’t driven home, it’s left there for us to catch or not catch, but it reinforces that theme of heredity and its impact on how we live. This is a coping mechanism that Beverly has passed down to her daughter. Black or white there is a lot to relate to in Redwood. It speaks to all of us because we are all represented. It isn’t my story, but there is someone for me to identify with racially. But perhaps the most important thing is there are aspects of all of these character that I can relate to. On the one hand we have Stevie, searching back into the past to understand where he came from. We also have Meg and Drew trying to look to the future, for me they represent how we have to come to terms with the past and understand our differences but not let that affect our willingness to try and build a future. The name of this play is so perfect. Redwoods are trees that can live for thousands of years, they have a long history. They also have root systems that spread out and intermingle with the roots of other redwoods. This is a play about family trees, about history about the way we intermingle to become a society. The play looks at interracial relationships and the struggles that can be unique to those, but it also shows the struggles and rewards that are inherent in all relationships. Beverly’s marriage is not interracial, but it has hit a rough patch. Allen is reminding us that struggle is part of all relationships but through Meg and Drew we also see that there can be love and reward in all relationships as well. In an ideal world, if this one still exists in 100 years, most families will be interracial. Hopefully we evolve to the point where we have dealt with the inherited traumas, and we have gotten past the color of our skins and simply love the person we fall for.

The collaboration of Allen the playwright and the director Harris feels like the perfect realization of this work. Allen’s script is the perfect vehicle to explore these issues because it is inviting us to explore them through its use of humor rather then lecturing to us. She has a real talent for writing characters that feel real and every beat seems to build the story, themes, and characters up. Harris stages the show in a way that we move effortlessly from scene to scene. We flow back and forth among the four primary characters as they interact with each other in different locals. With this much scene changing we could have felt like we were spending half the play in transition. Harris keeps the set design multifunctional, we transition locals by primarily shifting our focus from one area of the stage to another. The importance of transitions cannot be overestimated. I have sat through many productions that labor through scene changes and nothing breaks the momentum of a play like sitting and watching either characters or stagehands spend 45 seconds between scenes resetting the stage. This show is fluid, it isn’t hung up on trying to recreate reality in every scene, in fact some of its boldest moments are when we are decidedly not in the here and now of the real world. The set design by Sarah Bahr and lighting design by Karin Olson is another collaboration that soars in this production. The main stage easily becomes in our minds eye the gym, Stevie’s apartment, a coffee shop, the past. Stage left Beverly’s home, stage right Drew’s parents home, downstage meg and Drews apartment. Everything seems straightforward and then every once in awhile something happens usually involving the lighting and the set becomes more than the sum of it’s settings. There is a particularly powerful moment towards the end that seemed through the lightening to change the shape of the set. Dan Dukich sound design was also integral particularly in its use of providing echoes from the past.

The cast is greatly filled with local talent that has entertained me for years. There’s Max Wojtanowicz, Dana Lee Thompson, Dwight Xaveir Leslie, and Morgan Chang as the chorus and smaller character roles. Leslie nails the upbeat gym instructor struggling to respectfully tell Stevie to get a life, and man does he have some moves in the hip-hop dancing class that opens the play. Wojtanowicz gets the distant white Dad down to a tee, and Chang shows us the stepmom that tries to connect but not overstep. Thompson’s key role is as Alameda the ancestor who gave birth to Stevie and Beverly’s branch of the family. She has a powerful moment at the end when she speaks her truth as do the others, each is a revelation. Hers in particular lands as unexpected but truthful, it’s one of the darkest but truest moments in the play. China Brickley as Meg and Thomasina Petrus as Beverly play a mother and daughter well, they have an easy give and take for the day to day stuff, but both find the truth in their evasions of difficult matters. They both are hiding things about their relationships with their men and you can feel the mother-daughter sameness in behavior, which really sells the relationship. Kevin Fanshaw’s Drew gets the middle class son dealing with parents who seem not to hear or choose not to. For the role of Stevie the part is alternating between two actors. T. Mychael Rambo, whom I did not see but I know you’ll be in good hands from his previous work. Bruce A. Young played Uncle Stevie on the night I saw the show. Without a doubt my favorite performance of the night. His enthusiasm for his genealogy project felt genuine as did his annoyance at the other members of the family who were not responding to his requests. His scene with Drew is a masterful display as he plays the older man toying with the youngers insecurities and discomfort. I really felt his presence in every scene, his character is more outgoing than the others but it wasn’t just that, he held one’s attention even in the quieter moments.

Redwood is playing at the Jungle Theater thru March 13th. It’s the perfect kind of play it entertains you but also gives you a lot to think about. It’s a way to explore and discuss difficult themes but in a way that feels real and useful and productive. And it’s pretty funny. For more information and to purchase tickets go to