Review: BLACK CYPRESS BAYOU at Geffen Playhouse

A mystery unfolds deep in the heart of Texas

By: Feb. 23, 2024
Review: BLACK CYPRESS BAYOU at Geffen Playhouse
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We open on a young Black woman deep in a forest overhung with trees, sitting with a fishing pole at a stream, a scarf covering the bottom half of her face.  When she is joined by her mother – who has summoned her, but not actually to fish  – the younger woman insists that mother and daughter keep an appropriate physical distance from each other. Yes, it’s August of 2020, deep in a bayou in east Texas. Amidst the already fraught situation of a global pandemic, Vernita Manifold and her daughters LadyBird and RaeMeka will face a crisis that is even more distressing than a runaway virus. They’ll need to come together physically, spiritually, psychologically, and in every other “ly” way you can imagine. “I want a hug,” the family’s matriarch Vernita wails at one point. Indeed, she needs one.

BLACK CYPRESS BAYOU, the new play by Kristen Adele Calhoun having its world premiere at The Geffen Playhouse, considers the Manifold’s grim conundrum through a gaze that is both practical and poetic. And humorous. These three very different Manifolds have a task to execute, but they’re not entirely sure how to go about it or – for that matter – exactly how this situation dropped into their collective laps to begin with. Part mystery, part cathartic family drama ruminating on legacies of evil and forgiveness, director Tiffany Nichole Greene’s production grips us tightly from the outset and does not easily let us go. Thankfully, along this 80-minute journey, we also get to laugh as well as exhale.

We are shortly to learn that Clayton Rutherford, a very wealthy white man has died under unsavory circumstances and Vernita (Kimberly Scott), LadyBird (Brandee Evans) and RaeMeka (Angela Lewis) - all of whom knew or worked for the man – may be implicated in his death. Vernita has an incriminating piece of evidence which she has brought in a laundry basket down to the bayou. She needs her daughters’ help figuring out how to get rid of it.

In their dealing with the situation, the Manifolds fly their quirky flags. There’s Type A LadyBird afraid of rule-breaking and any kind of contact, and her weed dealing, free-spirited sister RaeMeka (whom mom insists will know what to do). Vernita herself may be a grandmother, but she’s a force to be reckoned with. These are women who pray together, fish together and are never without their guns and knives.

And the situation they are facing is every inch a test. There are mysterious cell phone calls. Slowly the mystery unravels, and the women get a visit from a security guard named Taysha (Amber Chardae Robinson) who may be able to offer some help.

Working in the smaller Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater,  scenic designer Lawrence E. Moten III places the action in a tree-shrouded glen that feels as sweaty as it is isolated. As the play’s title might indicate, those cypresses will have a function both symbolic and practical. (The playwright notes that this section of Lodi “had the record in lynchings well into the 1970s.”) The work of Moten III along with that of lighting designer Danny Jackson and sound designer Everett Elton Bradman helps establish a distinct sense of place. Not always the most charming place, necessarily, but a site where crazy stuff can happen.

On the acting front, Evans and Lewis are a charismatic study in contrasts as the sisters who are as bonded together as they are different from each other. In Evans’s LadyBird, we are observing the family’s perhaps too controlling anchor, a woman who will stand up for her sister and mother, but also for the wife and children who are dependent upon her. Lewis brings out RaeMeka’s kookiness without making her a sketch. The evolution – and surprises – of both women feel organic.

In Vernita Manifold, the always-watchable Kimberly Scott has found a role that she can tear into. The Manifold matriarch is, by turns authoritative, empty, desperate and – sure – in need of that hug. Scott, who can give some real bite to a word like “Sheeeit” nails all the shadings. Calhoun gives her the play’s cathartic moment (a couple of them in fact), and Scott knows just how to handle them.

About that moment…BLACK CYPRESS BAYOU takes a turn into the other-worldly and asks us to come along on a ride in the interest of making a greater point. If that’s what it takes to be a witness to the Manifold destiny, consider us all in.

BLACK CYPRESS BAOU plays through March 17 at 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. 

Photo of Kimberly Scott and Brandee Evans by Jeff Lorch.