Excellent story and stage design hindered by inconsistent writing in Portland Center Stage’s world premiere production
CW: Discussions of Sexual Assault, Slavery, and Racial Violence
‘Frustrating’ is the best description for the production of Redwood produced by Portland Center Stage at the Armory. Frustratingly fast, frustratingly slow, frustratingly witty and sometimes just frustrating. It’s a play that follows Meg Durbin, a black school teacher in Baltimore, as well as her family and her white boyfriend. The story unravels as the cast discovers the history of Alameda, an enslaved ancestor of the Durbin family. Meg’s family consists of Uncle Stevie, the catalyst for the genealogical adventure, and Meg’s mother Bev, an actuary who is only beginning to understand and deal with her own blackness.
Hearing the story of genealogical discovery within a black family leads the timid audience member on a similar journey to that undertaken by our characters. Bev and Meg discuss the possible implications of digging through their history and the broader heritage of Black Americans. When Uncle Stevie addresses the audience in a characteristic email to the entire Durbin clan, we learn more about Alameda, and the children she had with the slave-owner Tatum. Bev wonders if they were star-crossed lovers, pontificating about how they may have made gentle love. The audience, and Meg, both understand the visceral realities around the treatment of black bodies at a time when a white man could own a woman who could be made to bear his children. But within the scene, as Bev dreamily wonders about their love, and Meg knowingly scoffs at Bev’s naivete, lies a prominent point of focus in the play: the interwoven themes of generations and change. As Bev and Meg discuss their different points of view, Meg sides with the audience; the reality; the rape. The play also brings up questions about Bev’s religion, as she’s a practicing Episcopalian, and the tension between her faith and Meg’s lack thereof. But other than a few conversations that never fully delve into what either of them really believes about their beliefs, the audience is left hungry.
Above all, the characters remain too consistent throughout the play. Meg remains funny and bubbly, making jokes throughout the play even as she covers topics like embracing her own blackness and history and the things that bother her about Andrew’s reaction to discovering the truth of his ancestry. At times, this light-heartedness provides witty lines that develop Meg’s character. At other times, the comedy is off-putting, and the mood of the scene makes a quick 180 as the tension in the scene is unexpectedly released. The play toes the line of a serious discussion of the serious issues the characters deal with, but is quick to spin these discussions off track — as if these issues don’t really matter or aren’t as big of a deal or decision as the characters think them to be. This tactic makes it hard to get into the grit of the play, to truly bring it to life, and it’s a tactic that makes character development difficult. By the end of the play, the characters are more or less the same — and understandably so. They don’t grow from the events that they go through. Stevie seems more grounded and Meg a little less tense, but these seem more like the results of a good day of self-care than character development.
Regardless, the play succeeds in some aspects — especially when it embraces its story. Redwood shines in moments like the telling of Alameda’s story. The lighting, the sound, the set and the acting all comes together in a painful exposition of Alameda’s truth. Another striking moment is when, during a scene change, a dancer performs. The convergence of music, rhythm, and a kaleidoscope of color show the audience how far the play can go in creating an experience for the senses.
It is more frustrating than anything to see these incredibly constructed scenes contrast with the inconsistency of some of the other aspects of the play. There is a disconnect between what the play says and what the play shows. The play has potential, and some deeply important messages for the world today. However, while Redwood is enraptured with asking questions about race and history, it falls short on providing answers.