Review: “Genesis” (Definition Theatre Company)

Mercedes White in "Genesis"
Mercedes White in “Genesis”

Show:  Genesis

Company: Definition Theatre Company

Venue: The Den Theatre

Die Roll: 11

“A Raisin in the Sun” is a confirmed classic of the American stage.  Recently, a play written to be its sequel, “Clybourne Park”, has garnered accolades and awards.  One must wonder, did Lorraine Hansberry’s masterwork really need a prequel, too?  After seeing Definition Theatre Company’s production of Mercedes White’s “Genesis”, I’m glad this play was undertaken by Alana Arenas and her cast.

At its heart, “Genesis” is the story of Walter and Lena.  Set on the South Side of Chicago in 1918, one year before prohibition.  The fact that alcohol can legally be consumed in this play is important.  The temperance movement has nothing to do with this work, but if it were set a year or two later, many of the plot points would have been complicated by the lack of easily accessible alcohol.  Let me explain.

While this is a tale of a husband and wife and the hardships they face living near the bottom of the socio-economic scale, it is more importantly a tale about the people in their lives and how friends become family when you need them most.  Lena (played by the show’s creator, Mercedes White) is a hard working woman who not only works as a maid for a white family, but also does every domestic task around her own home.  Her mornings start early, fixing breakfast for her husband Walter (portrayed by Definition’s Artistic Director, Tyrone Phillips), and receiving visits from Yolanda (brought to life by Tiffany Addison), a neighbor and friend who visits daily to borrow one kitchen necessity or another.  Others come through the door with regularity, as well.

In a way, this play becomes an episode of “Friends”, if that show were predominantly African-American, set 70-some years earlier, and a drama.  Friends/neighbors come in and out, entertain, query, and add their support, then leave.  But, when they are needed most, they stick around.  Red (played by Julian Parker) works with Walter at the railroad.  They hang out and read the results of boxing matches together for fun.  They share little traditions, including a unique way to toast prior to drinking Red’s own homemade gin.

One night  Walter brings another friend home to hang with them.  Complication: Collin (played by Kelson McAuliffe) is Irish.  Tensions come on at the beginning, but it’s nothing that straightforward communication and homemade gin can’t overcome over time.  By the end of the play (and truly long before), Collin is welcomed into the family.  That is the primary way that the issues of race are raised and addressed.  They are raised again in passing from time to time, in comments that mention how white folks do things, but the story is less about that than about the direct goings-on within this tight little community within the apartment.  Walter does have an offstage altercation with a white man on the North Side, which is again not really part of the play’s conflict.  Instead, it seems to be treated as a symptom of his own self-destructive tendencies.

The Walter of this play can be assumed to be the father of the Walter in “A Raisin in the Sun”, and if that assumption is made, then we can also assume that some of his traits are present in the younger generation.  He is quick to think only of himself.  He is given to drink to heavily.  And it is his actions that take the family down a dark path.  When Lela loses the baby she is carrying, he blames her for the loss of the unborn child.  He turns against his wife, and is only set on the path to normality by those friends who have become so intertwined in their lives.

The interested others who make up the family in the tale are beautifully drawn.  Parker’s portrayal of Red is one rings completely true for a best friend.  Addison fills Yolanda with a level of sass and snark that makes one appreciate why everyone loves her despite her constant mooching.  And McAuliffe’s self-effacing Irish brogue becomes a lovely counter-melody whenever he comes on stage.  The supporting characters are both the point of the play, and the strength of the show.

White and Phillips are both fine in their roles, but one has to wonder how much their other responsibilities within the production took away from their work on stage.  Phillips is sometimes too presentational in his performance, especially at the very beginning of the show.  But, he does hit a groove and improves as things go on.  White, too, seems like she is reciting the lines she penned more so than acting through them.  And yet, through the action of the play, we grow to like the character enough that we forgive that.  For it is beautifully written, and thoughtfully brought to life.


TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Prequel to Hansberry classic finds truth in hardships and relationships.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”