“Redwood” was worth the wait.
Nearly two years after closing for previews due to the pandemic — with its set on stage ever since — the Jungle Theater production of Brittany K. Allen’s comedy-drama opened last weekend in Minneapolis.
Director H. Adam Harris’ clever and efficient direction unfolds against a candle-adorned backdrop like frothy, over-the-top comedy in the first act and touching drama in the second. Harris maximizes humor before aiming squarely at the heart.
It gets nuanced and timely performances from its cast led by China Brickey, who delivers a beautifully crafted turn as lead character Meg. The show has a versatile Greek chorus that includes Dwight Xaveir Leslie, who also plays a hip-hop dance class instructor; Dana Lee Thompson, who also represents the Alameda family matriarch; Morgen Chang, who voices a mother-in-law; and the inimitable Max Wojtanowicz, playing a carefree barista and an old slave owner.
“Redwood” revolves around the interracial couple from Baltimore, Meg, a black teacher, and Drew (Kevin Fanshaw), a white doctoral student in physics. Always ready to dance together, these two hipsters secretly fuck to the dismay of Meg’s mother, Beverly (Thomasina Petrus), a practicing Christian.
The couple’s rhythms are disrupted after Beverly’s fraternal twin, Uncle Stevie (Bruce A. Young), discovers youngsters can literally be kissing cousins: Drew’s family owned the family of Meg during slavery.
Playwrights are often among the world’s most adept smugglers, slipping important issues into theater on the back of light comedy. Think of “Tartuffe” and its ferocious attack on religious hypocrisy. Allen’s piece is less invigorating, coming from a place of intimacy and love.
But his subject – the buried story around slavery that exerts a powerful but invisible gravitational influence on those who walk above the ground – is becoming more popular and more personal as people use genealogical research to discover family histories.
In “Redwood,” such a pursuit undoes the stories Meg and Drew’s families tell about themselves.
Talking to Meg in her kitchen, Beverly tells her daughter that Alameda, the founding ancestor of the family, was from the Ivory Coast. Meg is suspicious.
“Apparently those kind and honest people took her in?” Beverly said.
“took her? Mom!”
“Listen, you gotta give me a break, Little Miss Black Panther. Kind, decent people bought his.”
The historical settings also tie the tongue to Drew, who only knows that his family did noble things for outsiders. As Uncle Stevie shows Drew his genealogy research at a cafe, the blood drains from his face.
“I don’t want to know anything anymore,” pleads Drew.
There’s a lot of music in “Redwood,” including Bruno Mars songs used for a hip-hop lesson. But the song that could also have been used is “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. “Redwood” takes its name from the tallest tree in the world and the one whose roots are tangled with other trees.
The big problem with the play is its false ending. The lovers also portray themselves as their people, which stands out because it seems so studied.
Allen wrote “Redwood” after the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Now the play opened days after another traumatic murder, that of Amir Locke in downtown Minneapolis, just two miles from the theater.
These bookends show that the voids “Redwood” seeks to fill – including in knowledge and understanding – remain as urgent as ever.
By: Brittany K. Allen. Directed by H. Adam Harris.
When: 7:30pm Tue-Sat, 2pm Sun. Ends March 13.
here: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., MPs.
Protocol: Vaccine or negative test, as well as mandatory masks.
Tickets: Pay-as-you-are ($45 recommended), jungletheater.org.