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The Refuge Plays

Nathan Alan Davis’ epic is an ambitious take on the life cycle of one Black family: births and deaths demarked by ever-present ghosts that never really leave.

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Nicole Ari Parker as Early and Daniel J. Watts as Crazy Eddie in a scene from Nathan Alan Davis’ “The Refuge Plays” at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

[avatar user=”Tony Marinelli” size=”96″ align=”left”] Tony Marinelli, Critic[/avatar]

It is sometimes unfortunate that the marketing of a show dwells on consideration of its length rather than the emotional depth of the overall experience, as is the case with The Refuge Plays. There was a time when something as verbose as Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, even at over nine hours over the course of three evenings, was welcomed as a necessary literary accomplishment. In recent years, we have come to expect, and even relish, a 90-minute play that sends us home early enough for what? For the last hour of prime-time television?

Nathan Alan Davis’ The Refuge Plays, if one pays attention, is exactly about refuge: growing up with it (because someone else has lovingly created it for you), seeking it (if you feel you must create your own), and coming back to the refuge you have always known (once you come to terms with the realization you’ve had no success trying to create it somewhere else). Davis, for the most part, has given us characters that we can easily fall in love with, each with their own path to refuge.

In Part 1: Protect the Beautiful Place, we are introduced to present-day Early, the original matriarch of this family. She resents Gail, her daughter-in-law, who now carries the responsibility of the head of the household. Gail’s daughter, Joy, will imminently take on the role of head of household as the ghost of Walking Man (Gail’s dead husband and Early’s son) has come to tell the family that Gail will die that day. Joy’s son, Ha-Ha, makes it known that he wants to change breakfast places with his mother so he can sit next to his grandmother one last time before she passes. Ha-Ha, naïve about relationships, finds himself looking for “a friend” in a nearby town. He returns with Symphony, a girl unblinking in the face of ghosts and a family that is held together by very strong women.

Jon Michael Hill as Walking Man and Jessica Frances Dukes in a scene from Nathan Alan Davis’ “The Refuge Plays” at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

In Part 2: Walking Man, we find Early again, but it is fifty years earlier. She is married to Crazy Eddie. Eddie, though on crutches from losing his legs from not taking adequate care of bullets lodged in them from fighting in WWII, still sees himself as the young spry man he once was. Walking Man is their young son who is in constant search for what, he knows not. He is an impulsive man taken to disappearing and extended road trips on foot in an effort to create his own path.

Dax, Crazy Eddie’s younger brother, visits to see his brother one last time before he creates another life for himself in Paris. He meets ghosts that tell him to leave his mark on Eddie’s family by gifting them with a water pump despite the fact there is no waterline anywhere near the house that was built in the middle of a forest. The ghosts, Clydette and Reginald, are Early’s deceased parents, who make contact with everyone in Early’s life in an effort to reach closure with the daughter they threw out when she became pregnant with the child of a ne’er-do-well that abandoned her. In the last moments of this act, Gail comes out of a clearing and meets Walking Man, who she will marry.

In Part 3: Early’s House, it is the 1950’s and we are “first introduced” to Early, who has survived the winter with an infant by killing a bear and taking over its cave. Crazy Eddie drives into the clearing in search of Early, the young girl he was always fond of, but has only recently realized he hasn’t seen in quite some time. When Early puts into words what she needs to do, it goes from one thing (keeping her baby, Walking Man, alive) to two things (keeping herself alive), to three things, “and build me a real place to live. Four walls and a roof. Maybe even a floor.” When she realizes Eddie may be along for this very bumpy ride, she asks for confirmation, “You sure you wanna build a house with me?” to which he replies, “You sure you want me to stay?” If one paid attention for the last three-plus hours, you know where this is going.

Jessica Frances Dukes as Gail and Ngozi Anyanwu as Joy in a scene from Nathan Alan Davis’ “The Refuge Plays” at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Director Patricia McGregor has been blessed with an extraordinary cast. Nicole Ari Parker as Early is one of the formidable rocks of this production, from the cantankerous older Early in the first play, who can still do a laundry, hang it herself, not to mention chop wood for the fire. This continues through to the mature Early in the second play holding it together for a husband that still can’t grasp his physical limitations and a son that thinks he is too grown to follow any semblance of discipline, “Then son, if you don’t need me, leave me. Leave me. Go on ahead. Right now. Go ‘head.” The Early we meet in the final act is a young woman older and wiser before her time that knows she will achieve what she sets out to do, with or without a concrete plan.

Daniel J. Watts is another of the brilliant rocks of these Refuge Plays. In the embodiment of the Crazy Eddie we meet in the second play, we see remnants of the beautiful soul that Early could not help but fall in love with in the final play. If one has ever had a soldier in their life come back home wounded, one sees the hints of a damaged, now handicapped man, who claws back valiantly to mask the pain of recognizing he is physically just a shadow of what he once was. Watts’ haunting performance in both the second and third acts should come with audience “tissue alerts” as the tears will undoubtedly flow.

The other rock of the production, Jessica Frances Dukes as Gail, makes her mark as the center of the first play. From the moment she gets up from bed for her alone time before sun-up, we feel an inner strength that sets the blueprint for who one has to be in order to be deemed a “strong woman.” Choosing not to deal combatively with her imminent death as shared by Walking Man’s ghost, she finds strength in knowing she has prepared the ones she will leave behind with the love and care she has always shared selflessly. A touching moment in her last day is spent reorganizing the bookshelves so as to leave a plan for the members of her family, the new arrival, Symphony, included.

Daniel J. Watts as Crazy Eddie and Lance Coadie Williams as Dax in a scene from Nathan Alan Davis’ “The Refuge Plays” at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The brilliant performances don’t stop there. Ngozi Anyanwu as Joy, Gail’s and Walking Man’s daughter, plays the young woman who left the home, the “refuge,” once already, only to come back to fulfill her rightful place in a family of strong women. She is a good mother to Ha-Ha, with great concern for the man he will come to be whenever she is no longer around. Her beautifully paced conversation with Symphony is wrapped in a “Oh my God, she’s going to be the woman in his life now” blanket that touches every mother in the audience.

Jon Michael Hill’s Walking Man is a palette of diverse emotions. In the first play, he is the ghost that never leaves their sight, touchingly kissing every family member while they sleep. This is the man who seemed destined to years of wildness even before he discovers that Crazy Eddie is not his father, but it is the realization that something wonderful (the appearance of Gail also in search of something to ground her) will help him find his “refuge.” The Ha-Ha of JJ Wynder is a charmer in his naiveté. When his great-grandmother starts pushing conversation about sex and children, we can feel the heat of his blushing way back in the last rows of the theater. His interaction with the lovely Symphony of Mallori Taylor Johnson is all warmth and gentleness, with absolutely no pretense to cloud whatever is going on between them.

Crazy Eddie’s brother Dax, gleefully played by Lance Coadie Williams, is one of the true jewels of this production. He is the comic relief in a play where there is a lot of heartache. His flip remarks are totally disarming and shed light on a character who has used his own free spirit to get him this far. His Paris plans provide the young Walking Man the means to see we choose our road when we choose it, and not a moment sooner. Dax’s interaction with the ghosts of Clydette and Reginald set in motion one of the miracles that keeps this play home. A water pump that could not possibly pump water does in fact defy all odds. Jerome Preston Bates and Lizan Mitchell have the unenviable task of being the ghosts that will never be able to make peace with their daughter. Their performances are ultimately quite heartbreaking.

Jon Michael Hill as Walking Man and Nicole Ari Parker as Early in a scene from Nathan Alan Davis’ “The Refuge Plays” at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

McGregor and Davis’ vision is supported by a faithful-to-the-mission design team. Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design is sumptuous in its bareness. The thrift store castoffs in the first play feel just right in a ramshackle house that doesn’t appear to even have real glass in its windows. The takeaways reveal a backyard that is spacious enough to house a large tent and a good place to pluck away feathers from a turkey that Early catches with her bare hands. The final act finds Eddie’s truck sharing the bare space that one day will be their home and “refuge.” Emilio Sosa’s costumes reflect the drab and colorlessness of having little in common with the ghosts being selected for the bright white and, sometimes even dapper, as in the case of Mr. Bates and Miss Mitchell’s churchgoing outfits. Stacey Derosier’s lighting is sensitive to what is essentially a work that lives and breathes in its moods.

There may very well be room for Mr. Davis to do some serious excising by way of streamlining some of the monologues that can be too poetic and frilly for their own good. However, every character you see is filled with immense and totally selfless heart.

The Refuge Plays (through November 12, 2023)

The Roundabout Theatre Company in association with New York Theatre Workshop

Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, in Manhattan

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

Running time: three hours and 30 minutes including two intermissions

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About Tony Marinelli (57 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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