By John Lyle Belden
The magic of live theatre is such that more than persons become characters in the drama. A house, for instance, can have a role, or even the concepts of time and culture.
This house on a street in the Mud Row area of West Chester, Penn., has a lot to say, through the people who occupy it. While the means to buy it was less than honorable, it sits firmly in the hands of a pair of sisters at a time when African Americans owning anything was an accomplishment. Each woman takes a different approach to improving their chances of future prosperity – Frances by joining the Civil Rights protests, and Elsie Mae by marrying her unborn child’s father, a member of the “Talented Tenth” – a designation for those meant to uplift fellow Blacks, but here, ironically, a form of elitism.
The daughters of Elsie’s girl, Regine and Toshi, today find themselves with a complex relationship to the old house, as gentrifying developers come around, money in hand, to turn it into a parking lot.
This is life on “Mud Row,” the play by Dominique Morisseau at Fonseca Theatre Company, directed by Josiah McCruiston.
Frances (Lakesha Lorene) and Elsie (Jacquelyn Owens) Jeter are each critical of the other’s intended actions, seeing confronting the police by one, and high society by the other, a fool’s errand — even dangerous. Still, they are family, bound by love and fierce pride. Lorene and Owens also imbue these women with unflagging optimism, foremothers to be honored alongside their ancestors. Their scenes cut in from time to time among modern moments, giving context and fleshing out the “character” of the home.
Regine (Aniqua ShaCole) is no longer a Jeter, having married Devin (Marcus Elliott), and glad to have gotten away from the Mud Row house to live in Philadelphia. However, Grandma Elsie’s Will gave it to her, which she only found out when notified of the cash offer from the developer. Now, the couple has returned, she to resolve difficult memories and he to get an appraisal for a higher price.
Having been abandoned for years, the home is eerily well kept. The reason, at least for the last few months, is a pair of squatters: Toshi (Anila Akua), who abandoned the family years ago for a life of crime and addiction, and her fellow recovering-addict boyfriend Tyriek (Brenton Anderson).
Morisseau’s funny-in-context humor gets quite a few laughs as each couple grouses about “who’s occupying MY house?” as well as the inevitable and mildly violent first encounter.
Akua gives an excellent portrait of a woman struggling with addict-brain, wanting to do good and feel she’s better than the streets, while part of her insists that’s where she belongs. She’s uncomfortable with trust, making her seem even more unreliable. Tyriek, bless his simple soul, has been thug so long he hardly knows any other way to act, though he desperately wants to strive for respectability. Anderson lets us see the flashes of street wisdom and noble eagerness that make him ultimately likable.
ShaCole and Elliott portray Regine as a woman gone bougie, while Devin always had been. Though likely a concept she only heard of in a college history class, she finally managed the family’s Talented Tenth dream, but felt resented by her grandmother for achieving it. Toshi, though, doesn’t remember things the same way.
McCruiston imbues this play with what he calls the spirit of “Sankofa,” a West African word meaning “to retrieve,” in this context to go back to a place and time to recover something important. Fonseca producing director Jordan Flores Schwartz notes she chose this play to begin a 2022 Season of Healing. These characters will need plenty of that.
To further give context to the play, McCruiston set up viewings of “West’s Neighborhood: A Black Woman’s View of the Suburbs” videos by Rachel West, an educator living in the Chicago area. One is shown pre-show, while the second is screened during intermission.
To paraphrase an unrelated song, will they pave over the past to put up a parking lot? See “Mud Row” through March 20 at 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis; tickets and information at fonsecatheatre.org.