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Redwood

Brittany K. Allen somehow unearths humor in an examination of how America’s history of slavery can have sorrowful implications in relationships even now.

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Denny Dale Bess, Drew Lewis and Brittany K. Allen in a scene from Allen’s “Redwood” at Ensemble Studio Theatre (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Tony Marinelli

Tony Marinelli, Critic

We’ve all heard the saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” It serves as a warning that when we have too much free time, we may quickly get bored, unproductive, and even get into trouble…or worse, create a living hell for someone else. Such is the case with the currently “funemployed” (after taking a huge buyout from working at a dotcom) Uncle Stevie, recently returned to Baltimore thanks to a “minor change in my domestic situation-ship…he got the condo, I got my groove back,” when his long-term partner shows him the door.

As much fun as it is to watch the Puckish Tyrone Mitchell Henderson as Stevie, as he maneuvers through his hip-hop dance and pre-natal yoga classes before he is banished from the studio, resigned to half-heartedly watching Cindy Crawford’s Aerobicize videos at home, the play is not about him, but more about the aftermath of his dabbling in Ancestry.com and how it affects his niece and her boyfriend.

If an audience can willingly get past the contrivance that the distant relative Stevie meets over coffee, a young white man whose family generations ago once owned (and fathered!) slaves in Stevie’s family, and who just so happens to be the live-in boyfriend of Stevie’s niece Meg, then the audience will have a good time. The four leads of Meg, her boyfriend Drew, her mom Beverly, and Beverly’s twin brother Stevie are written so well. We care so much about each of them that the revelation that they are intertwined by the horrific tale of a plantation owner that loved his slave but was not above slashing her tendons when she tried to run away sets a tone that should be devoid of all humor.

Eric. R. Williams, Brittany K. Allen and Bryn Carter in a scene from Allen’s “Redwood” at Ensemble Studio Theatre (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

The playwright Brittany K. Allen, who is also playing the role of Meg, creates a comedy with a lot more story to it than meets the eye. Her contribution as Meg is a fully thought-out young woman with a career that is important to her while balancing a new relationship with a white man who may or may not be accepted by all the members of her family. Telling her parents that she and Drew are “living in sin” may have to wait for an appropriate moment if that ever comes. Meg, in what could be played as a tail-between-the-legs moment seeks refuge with her mom when things aren’t going well at her own home. Instead, Allen plays up the position of strength, blissfully unaware that her parents’ marriage may very well be over. Alone, Beverly calls her daughter to discuss the current shambles of the marriage but deletes the message before she ends the call. The always wonderful Portia peels away layers of a person who has always held things together not just for herself, but for her family. Some of her “throwaway” lines to end conversations are the most lucid in the play.

We see in the scene when Drew meets Stevie to learn about their Ancestry.com connection that the complex role of Drew is in great hands with Drew Lewis. What begins as a casual look-see deteriorates into something not just uncomfortable but horrific for someone who does not see color as a difference, a barrier, or a stumbling block. As the boyfriend who has his own career too but comes from a family of mixed race already, he embraces differences rather than judge them. His Hattie stepmother is Asian-American and appears to be the rock of their family. She honestly answers the questions that her husband shies away from.

The Harriet of Kate Siahaan-Rigg is a particular joy of this production. Her comedic timing is impeccable, yet a moment when she discusses how her husband disappointed her by not defending her when referred to as “Hank’s little China doll” by one of the husband’s friends is a reckoning. “A part of me expected your father to punch this man in the throat. But he did not. I guess what I have learned about marriage is that everybody hurts sometimes, like the song…You’ll always be apologizing and forgiving, apologizing, and forgiving, forever till somebody dies.”

Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Bryn Carter, Denny Dale Bess and Portia in a scene from Brittany K. Allen’s “Redwood” at Ensemble Studio Theatre (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Denny Dale Bass has the unenviable task of playing Tatum, the plantation owner, whose love for his favorite slave meant he would provide for their offspring as he would for his white children from the manor, but that train derails immeasurably once she is captured after trying to run away. The description of the ensuing brutality does make one forget this play is meant to be a comedy. Bass doubles as Drew’s dad, a good father but a man who easily walks away from uncomfortable conversations rather than deal with what’s at hand. Bryn Carter, moving as the slave ancestor Alameda (and doubling as one of Stevie’s gym mates) and Eric R. Williams as the kind, yet tough-love, gym instructor complete the excellent cast.

Director Mikhaela Mahony finds the fine line between the comedy and the fiercely dramatic points throughout the play. When getting together again after their time to decompress apart from each other, Meg asks, “One case scenario, we get married and have kids someday, well, did you know your kids will be black?” Drew replies, “…Umm, yes? I have considered the possibility of beautiful biracial children.” She responds, “But how could we even do that???Don’t you see? How would I tell our story to a child? When I don’t even know how to tell our story to me.” Within minutes Drew has a videocall to his stepmother that turns a sobering situation into a touching way of analyzing family dynamics, culminating in Meg to Drew, “You just used your stepmother to like Love Actually Stoop scene me.”

The lines drawn are so fine that by the end we are conscious of Redwood being very much a team effort united in a great vision. Choreographer Sasha Hutchings provides the expected dance routines for the gym sequences but outdoes herself in an extended dance suite for how Meg and Drew first met and began dating. Scenic designer Ao Li provides what at first seems to be a bare bones two-wall corner set and platforms, but the platforms end up being places to sit, and chests of drawers, in a never-ending dance of being repositioned and reshaped by members of the cast.

Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Portia, Drew Lewis, Brittany K. Allen and Bryn Carter in a scene from Allen’s “Redwood” at Ensemble Studio Theatre (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Costume designer Mika Eubanks boldly imagines many of the double cast roles – plantation owner Tatum’s outfit tears away to that of his descendant Florida retiree. Stevie has flashes of necessary sparkle in practically every outfit. Lighting designers Betsy Chester and Stacey Derosier create an ambience to clearly define when the ancestors from the past are present watching. One very breathtaking design moment is when portraits of the ancestors are magically revealed on the bare walls. The leaf green of the walls may have represented an outdoor setting earlier, but as the backdrop for the beautifully lit portraits as they come to light, we start to think about how much black is contained in that dark green.

Redwoods are known for their age (history), their height and breadth, and their resiliency. Like the characters we have been watching, resiliency comes in steadfastness and here, in humor too, as key survival strategies when life’s challenges are thrust upon us. Consider yourselves blessed that you’ve been in very fine company for the last hundred or so minutes.

Redwood (through November 12, 2023)

Ensemble Studio Theatre, 545 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission

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Tony Marinelli
About Tony Marinelli (50 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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