BWW Review: Wrestling with the Weight of History and Identity in REDWOOD, at Portland Center Stage
Before curtain on opening night of REDWOOD, Marissa Wolf, the artistic director at Portland Center Stage, suggested that we could be witnessing the world premiere of a new American classic. That's a bold claim that I shrugged off as just the kind of thing artistic directors like to say. But after watching the play, I suspect she might be right.
REDWOOD is an insightful, funny, of-the-moment (occasionally tear-inspiring) play about race and identity by Brittany K. Allen (who also stars in it), with dance choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie. The play recognizes the horrors of our collective past and the complexity of our present, while looking optimistically toward the future.
REDWOOD is about a young interracial couple - Meg Wilson (Brittany K. Allen) and Drew Tatum (Nick Ferrucci) - who have recently moved in together and are navigating all of the challenges that come with sharing your life with another person (when to tell the parents, etc.). The trouble starts when Steve Durbin (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), Meg's uncle, discovers via Ancestry.com that many generations ago the Tatum family had owned the Durbin family. Not only that, but Drew's great-great-etc. grandfather and Meg's great-great-etc. grandmother had had children together.
This discovery is met with a different reaction from everybody, underscoring one of the play's most important messages - that no group is a monolith.
Steve, who's single, fun-employed, single, and looking for meaning in every exercise class you can imagine, seems to be seeking connection to his ancestors as a substitute for a lack of connection with his living family. To him, it's vital to meet the last living descendent of the Tatum family, even though he's not sure exactly what he wants out of the meeting.
Beverly (Jennifer Lanier), who's Steve's twin sister and Meg's mom, is less interested - growing up as a military brat, American identity was always more important to her than black identity. Now, in middle age and dealing with the dissolution of her marriage, the church has become her most important group.
Meg isn't sure what to do with the news. At first, she suggests it doesn't matter, but as she learns more, history starts to weigh progressively heavily on her and she finds herself unable to relate to Drew the way she once did.
For his part, Drew hadn't known much about his family except that his grandparents were aid workers, and the news of his slave-owning ancestors destroys his picture of where he came from as well as his perception of his own "wokeness."
Framing this whole story is some pretty spectacular dance. Orion Bradshaw, Charles Grant, Ashley Mellinger, and Andrea Vernae serve as a modern Greek chorus, but rather than commenting verbally on the action, they provide perspective via movement. The four also play a range of characters, including those that populate the Durbin and Tatum family tree.
REDWOOD's challenge and its triumph is finding a way for all of these people to come together. The journey isn't linear - Allen's view is expansive, making space for the many, sometimes conflicting, forces at work in our lives. As Meg and Drew wrestle with the relative impacts their genealogical and cultural identities have on their relationship, they provide a framework for how we might be able to achieve reconciliation on a larger social scale.
As a white person, I know that my skin color affords me a phenomenal amount of privilege, most of which I probably don't even recognize. For me, REDWOOD reinforced the importance of coming to the table and acknowledging the truth about our collective past and understanding its continued influence today. From that foundation, we can build a better tomorrow.
Only time will tell if REDWOOD becomes a new American classic, but I believe it will have a life long after this premiere.
Also, I couldn't find a slick way to mention Brittany Vasta's awesome set above, so let me just say it's a big wow!
REDWOOD runs through November 17. More details and tickets here.
Photo credit: Russel J. Young