By: Samuel L. Leiter
October 11, 2023: The Refuge Plays, by multi award-winning Nathan Alan Davis (Nat Turner in Jerusalem), now at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, consists of three lovingly acted, sensitively directed (by Patricia McGregor), but ultimately emotionally insufficient, occasionally obscure one-acts connected through their focus on a single African American family and their home. A multigenerational, epic-scaled work that tells its story in reverse chronological order, it begins with Part 1: Protect the Beautiful Place, set in the present. This is followed after an intermission by Part 2: Walking Man, taking place in the 1970s. After another intermission, the work concludes with Part 3: Early’s House, happening in the 1950s.
Several characters are seen as they are now and as they were when younger, offering their actors notable opportunities to display striking versatility in differentiating their characters by age. Wigs (by Earon Nealey), makeup (by J. Jared Janas), and costuming (by Emilio Sosa), are enormously helpful adjuncts to such transformations. (See Jaja’s African Hair Braiding for similarly impressive character-changing effects.)
Elusive, elegiac, folksy, spiritualistic, lyrical, funny, and infused with symbolism and magic realism, The Refuge Plays is also, at times, meandering, slow, confusing, tedious, and emotionally distant. Partly, this is because of its extreme—for the contents—length of three and a half hours, in which narrative events take second place to narrative talk. The language, mostly delivered in heavy Black dialect, is rich, even poetic, and noteworthy speeches and scenes are frequent, but it takes some fortitude to remain interested when so little is happening and the stakes driving the action forward are so tenuous. Walkouts were noticeable, even after the first part, obviating length as the only reason.
The tiny, two-room house at the play’s core, the “refuge,” so to speak, of the title, is a makeshift one located deep in a forest in Southern Illinois, somewhere near Carbondale. When the play begins, we see the house as it is now, in need of repair; in the last part, set seven decades earlier, we see only a circular arrangement of logs designating where the house will one day stand. Shown in the opening part by designer Arnulfo Maldonado in skeletal form, it’s backed by dark green curtains, expertly lit by Stacey Derosier, whose vertical bunching suggests the surrounding trees.
In view of some audience members (myself among them) initially having had difficulty discerning the relationships among the characters, I offer the following: the house’s present-day residents, each with their colorful eccentricities, are Early (the exceptional Nicole Ari Parker, A Streetcar Named Desire, “Empire”), the worldly-wise if borderline senile matriarch, widow of Crazy Eddie; Gail (Jessica Frances Dukes, Trouble in Mind), Early’s feisty, gray-haired daughter-in-law, widow of Early’s son, Walking Man (Jon Michael Hill, Pass Over); Joy (Ngozi Anyanwu), Gail’s daughter and Early’s granddaughter; and Ha-Ha (JJ Wynder), Joy’s gangly 17-year-old son, Gail’s grandson and Early’s great grandson. I’m not sure but perhaps the focus on these women is intended to have us celebrate the formidable power of Black women to sustain their family heritages.
The house is technically off the grid—no electricity, no phones or TV, an outside pump for water—and the family is dirt poor; old Early is still able to chop the wood needed for fuel. So small is the place that Gail sleeps in the one bed, Joy on the couch, Ha-Ha on the floor, and great grandmother Early sitting up in an arm chair. The family itself is not off the grid, though, going into town when need be in their rundown old truck, even taking the occasional odd job, like standing in a shopping center’s parking lot with a sign and pointing toward the bank.
Ha-Ha attends school and the family is proud of its small bookcase. The childlike Ha-Ha (like Early) is an obsessive reader, being especially enamored of Ralph Ellison’s classic about Black identity, The Invisible Man, which he’s read 10 times, although Early knows it even better. Every now and then someone lights (or tries to) and smokes from a pipe—it reappears in Part 2 as well—that appears to symbolize the ongoing life spirit of the family.
Neither race, however, nor other broad social concerns are among the subjects discussed. Nor do we ever learn just what it is that keeps these otherwise intelligent people tied to their abject living conditions. When Walking Man and Gail talk about a career for Ha-Ha, the choice seems limited to slaughtering animals, the job—as we learn in a lengthy monologue—that cost Walking Man his life when a heifer he was killing rolled over and crushed him.
As with what follows, Part 1 is more about its characters than its plot. Chief among the developments is the news, delivered by the ghost of Walking Man, Gail’s late husband, that she is fated to die soon in a truck crash. In The Refuge Plays, as Part 2 will also reveal, ghosts—dressed in smart white ensembles—are as corporeal as the living. Walking Man even gives Ha-Ha cash to help him find a girlfriend; the family line, you see, rests in the boy’s loins. And in the other chief occurrence, Ha-Ha actually does come home with a girl, Symphony (Mallori Taylor Johnson), an attractive, affectionate, well-dressed young woman who, though fascinated by Ha-Ha’s circumstances, and clearly having intriguing potential, seems weirdly out of place. On the other hand, her position in the first play prevents us from learning more about her.
Part 2: Walking Man, which takes its title from that character—so called because of his aimless wandering, to as far as Alaska and South America, in search of some indeterminate goal—moves us to the post-Vietnam 1970s. It’s set outside the house, whose exterior is represented simply by a door; a tree’s thick trunk, nearby, prompts young Walking Man, having returned home, to say he wishes to be similarly rooted in one place. Early is now much younger; indomitable, she has no trouble killing a wild turkey on her own.
Soon, we meet Early’s husband, Crazy Eddie (Daniel J. Watts), a World War II vet who walks with crutches because of bullets received in combat. Then there are the ghosts of Early’s mother, Clydette (Lizan Mitchell), and father, Reginald (Jerome Preston Bates). Also present is Crazy Eddie’s brother Dax (Lance Coadie Williams), who—as a parting gift before he visits Paris—will install the pump with the ghosts’ advice (and money), setting up a tent in which to sleep.
Much time that could be better used involves Dax bantering about trivialities with his brother and Walking Man. Finally, after Walking Man, furious upon discovering from his ghostly forebears who his “blood father” is, begins whittling a spear to find and kill the man, when he encounters another wanderer in the forest. This is the young Gail, bearing a lighter (received from those ubiquitous ghosts) that never goes out; a mystical colloquy establishes her romantic relationship with the now pacified Walking Man.
Finally, Part 3: Early’s House, brings us to the same spot in the 1950s, a clearing where the house will stand. We now watch Crazy Eddie, pursuing the missing Early, drive his pickup into the woods, where he finds the missing Early huddled with her unnamed infant son (the future Walking Man), wrapped in blankets under the tree. Angrily resistant to any help, even the food he’s taken from the grocery store he worked at before quitting, she threatens him with a hammer. Gradually, the not so Crazy Eddie charms the no longer defiant Early into compliance and the two, after gentle kisses, look forward to a life together in the house they’ll build on this very site.
The scene, like its predecessors, combines whimsical stories with believable ones (like those about his war injury, and hers about killing a bear and hibernating), and even more numinous developments, like his truck refusing to start because it’s under the spell of the bear’s spirit, which only a prayer to the bear can resolve. A good number of laughs burst forth during the otherwise dawdling conversation, until, once Eddie and Early’s loving connection has been established, and they’re ready to build a house here, the play at last comes to an end.
There’s fine writing in this ambitious effort but Davis has not justified using so much time to say so little; when it’s over, it’s hard to resist wondering what his main point is. The idea of refuge in the title is never seriously explored, nor does the exploration of character in backtracking chronology possess the impact of surprise—a so-called big reveal, for example—such an approach should provide. For all its comic highlights The Refuge Plays remains rather static and only now and then engaging. As the walkouts remind us, theatre should be a place one goes to for refuge, not somewhere from which to escape it.
The Refuge Plays ***
Laura Pels Theatre/Roundabout Theatre i/a/w New York Theatre Workshop
111 W. 46th Street, NYC
Through November 12. 2023
Photography: Joan Marcus