Family history repeats itself in “Mud Row,” Dominique Morisseau’s tense and thorny but ultimately uplifting 2019 drama about two pairs of sisters. It is currently making its New Jersey premiere in the Premiere Stages series at Kean University in Union, and runs through July 31.
Marshall Jones III directs the production, which features Stacey Sherrell and Alinca Hamilton as the play’s central pair of sisters, Regine and Toshi; Ashley Nicole Baptiste as their grandmother, Elsie; and Lekethia Dalcoe as their great-aunt (and Elsie’s sister), Frances.
Elsie and Frances are shown in the 1960s, when they are in their 20s — really, just beginning their adult lives. Regine and Toshi are shown in the present day, a bit older than Elsie and Frances were back then, and more hardened by experience.
The sisterly relationships are, though very different, somewhat parallel.
Elsie is focused on following the rules of society, marrying well and moving up the social ladder; Frances devotes her life to protest and advocating change. Both have made up their minds about the lives they want to lead, and can’t be budged.
Two generations later (we never learn much about Elsie’s daughter, who became Regine and Toshi’s mother) … Regine has a good job and a loving husband, Davin (Landon Woodson), while Toshi is an ex-addict struggling to put her life back together with the help of her boyfriend, Tyriek (Malik Reed). He’s just as devoted to Toshi as Davin is to Regine and has a bit of goofy sweetness to him, but also a brutality created by a lifetime of poverty and deprivation.
“Livin’ by your wits make you do shit sometimes … but that ain’t who we are,” says Malik at one point. “That’s what we do when we’re out of options.”
“What you do is exactly who you are,” responds Regine, refusing to accept his excuse. “Anyone says different is an absolute lie.”
Both pairs of sisters live in Mud Row, a predominantly Black neighborhood in West Chester, Pa., near Philadelphia. Morisseau has Elsie, in the play’s first scene, give us a little history on the area, and can’t resist the obvious metaphor the setting provides.
“Somebody’s got to fight for us to be treated better than mud,” she has Frances say, later. ” ‘Cause don’t nobody wanna be stuck in the mud forever.”
Elsie and Frances are shown in stylized, sometimes almost dream-like vignettes, framed at the back of the stage like pictures in an old scrapbook. Regine, Toshi, Davin and Tyriek, meanwhile, are seen — after matriarch Elsie dies — in the run-down, junk-filled house where Elsie and other family members lived for many years. (Set designer David M. Barber makes you practically feel the dust in the air.)
I’ve seen two of Morisseau’s other plays (“Skeleton Crew,” “Detroit ’67”) and been impressed by her ability to create both complex characters, and the kind of raw confrontations between them that can keep audience members on the edge of their seats. She does the same in “Mud Row,” which includes lots of edgy arguments and one moment of physical menace that will take your breath away.
It’s smart of Morisseau, too, to make the pairs of sisters’ relationships with each other not too similar. Elsie and Frances, despite their different outlooks on life, have a deep, loving bond that is never in danger of being broken. Regine and Toshi, meanwhile, are beyond estranged — their relationship has festered into hate.
Surely, there is some familial love there, too, buried deep. But can they find it? And do they even want to?
That’s where the main drama of “Mud Row” lies. And Morisseau and this production’s accomplished cast and crew build a riveting story around it.
Premiere Stages will present “Mud Row” at the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center at Kean University in Union through July 31. Visit premierestagesatkean.com.
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