In 'Mud Row,' two generations navigate sisterhood and social change
This week, Cygnet Theatre opens its production of Dominique Morisseau's 2019 play, "Mud Row."
Morisseau, a 2018 MacArthur Fellow, was part of the famed Lark Play Development Center in New York. Her intimate, poetic writing — including the Tony-nominated "Skeleton Crew,"
"Detroit ’67" and "Paradise Blue" which make up her "Detroit Projects" trilogy — digs into the way people and their communities manage social upheaval and change.
"Mud Row" tells the story of two generations of sisters in the same family, one set in the 1960s, and another in the present day, both living in the same house in a West Chester, Pennsylvania neighborhood.
Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg said that the play was commissioned by the Pennsylvania-based People's Light theater company as part of a project to develop plays about the local neighborhoods.
Sonnenberg said that the backdrop of the world outside the house in Mud Row is like an anchor for the way the script moves seamlessly back and forth in time.
"In both periods, there is — especially — social change. So they both take place in times of change — both sections — the past and the present," she said.
In the 1960s, sisters Elsie (Andréa Agosto) and Frances (Joy Yvonne Jones) are divided about whether to protest for civil rights. In the present day, gentrification surrounds the home where sisters Regine (Marti Gobel) and Toshi (Rachel Cognata) live.
"This is really one of the things I love about the play, because it's not an issue play. It's an intimate family play set against a broad backdrop. That's my favorite kind of theater," Sonnenberg said. "In this particular case, the broad backdrop is social change in America, the history of this particular neighborhood Mud Row."
Sonnenberg said that one of the things the play does well is explore the ways the sisters are both devoted to each other, but hurt or disappoint each other too.
"One of the things that comes up for me a lot with the play is this idea of how hard it is to forgive those closest to you, and the breathtaking journey of forgiveness," Sonnenberg said.
Actor Marti Gobel, who plays present-time sister Regine, said that in the similar ways they struggle with and love each other, the women are connected even across the generations.
"These women are all for seeking to feel a palpable change in not only how they feel in their home, which they've all shared, but how they feel in the world — and the overlapping sense of emotional dependence on each other, even when there are those that are not present," Gobel said.
In one scene, Regine and her partner, Davin (played by Rondrell McCormick) are in the house on Mud Row discussing whether to tear the house down and start over. Regine feels distraught and disconnected from the history of the house, which she inherited from her grandmother.
"[Regine] is grappling with an incredibly unhappy childhood and the presentation of love that she got from her grandmother, which did not present as love. It presented as hardness. So to walk into this home that she hasn't been in five years is soul shaking for her," Gobel said.
Set in the East End neighborhood of West Chester, Pennsylvania, it's a story that's rooted in place, but still has a universality and relatability that transcends the specifics. Mud Row could be countless other neighborhoods in many cities struggling with gentrification and history.
Gobel said she is struck by the way the play touches on how gentrified communities are losing "porch culture" which holds universal importance in the African American community.
"One thing that we are definitely losing with gentrification and as we move forward in modern times is the notion of sitting on the porch and relating to your neighbors, because they become an extended family or community," Gobel said.
Cygnet's production of "Mud Row" is one of several plays in recent months directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg featuring not only a work by a Black playwright, but a primarily Black cast: the new "1222 Ocean Front" at New Village Arts; "The Garden" at La Jolla Playhouse and "Trouble in Mind" at The Old Globe.
"It definitely feels like a shift. But, not only that," Sonnenberg said. "The kind of recognition that there's more than one Black story."
As an actor, Gobel's experience offers another perspective.
"In 20 years of work — as an artist that works internationally — this is literally the second play in 20 years that I have been in with an all Black cast and a Black director. It doesn't happen that often," Gobel said. "And I would sure love to see it occur more, so the specificity of this production is sadly applicable to American theater and we do need to see more of that."
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