|Cast of Family Matters (David Hsieh)|
(at 12th Avenue Arts)
Through July 28, 2018
ReAct Theatre is presenting a new play by local playwright Rachel Atkins called Family Matters. Atkins has fashioned a tender, stressed-out family dramedy that focuses on themes of family responsibility, elder pitfalls, adoption, and race. It’s a pretty full pot of stew!
The story, involving four female family members and a new boyfriend, is set on Mother’s Day and the Horowitz family elder, Nana (Walayn Sharples) gets to have an outside celebration at her family home because it’s tradition to do it that way. What’s new is that Nana goes in and out of remembering things, and her daughters Pearl (Serin Ngai) and Lena (Katie Tupper) and granddaughter Gracie (Mika Swanson) try to figure out how to celebrate around the forgettings and the moments of outright dementia.
Clearly, this is a “blended family,” as the daughters are Asian and the mom is not. The progress of the dialogue helps us understand that this Jewish couple adopted two (unrelated) Korean babies, years ago, and reared them in the Jewish faith and traditions. Pearl does not think about her “birth heritage” much, but Lena has become a bit obsessed with reclaiming her Korean birthright.
Similarly, Pearl and Lena deal very differently with their mother’s dementia. Pearl seems more realistic about it, and lives with it every day, but Lena discounts the severity of the situation and wants Pearl to just keep doing what Pearl’s been doing – taking the brunt of the responsibility off Lena’s shoulders.
Gracie has been helping take care of Nana, but aside from barista work, has not made much forward progress with her own life. She invites her new boyfriend, Antoine (Tamron Harrison), to come to the celebration so everyone can meet him. But she’s neglected to mention that he’s black.
In fact, Gracie explains, the family has seemed so…post-racial (my term) that Gracie is surprised that his skin color is even a “thing” and appalled when Nana looks at him and starts screaming the “N” word at him and becoming terrorized. This moment changes the tenor of the play from a sort of light family comedy with a theme about elder decline into a fuller stew of racial issues, attempting to take them head on.
Atkins has written plays about race before and includes clashing ideologies and internal biases of characters both white and of color. This is, of course, still an area fraught with tension, even in plays that try to expand people’s consciousness. Atkins manages this well and chooses family history to steep it in. Black Like Us, another recent play by Atkins, had “white” family members find out their mother was “passing” as white and had a whole black family she kept from her children.
The cast, admirably led by veteran thespian, Sharples, manages the themes and the transitions adeptly. Harrison, in particular, manages the difficult emotions of a black man being called the “N” word, and still having people expect him to forgive it immediately, with aplomb and polish. His dialogue is also extremely well-written.
Still, the daughters and granddaughter could bite more into their dialogue and show greater ranges of emotion. They’re not attacking what they’ve been given as fully as they might. It may be that as the run continues, they will get more comfortable and do so.
This is a production well worth your time and effort. More plays are now dealing with dementia and aging, though not nearly as many as there could be. More families are also dealing with race and their beliefs as our country becomes more and more multicultural. Hopefully, you and your companions will have great conversations after the show!