"The Hotch." It's the A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Competition at Washington University, and it's open to all Wash U students. The 2016 winner is a beautiful play by Andie Berry. It's called Son of Soil. As winner of the competition the play received a full (and very fine) production in the Hotchner studio theatre. The actors are all students, and they are supported by some of our very best professionals in directing and design.
The play is set in a strange and vague sort of American dystopia. It's in the near future -- or ninety years in the past -- or perhaps right now. It's set in a small town which, one feels, should be in the South--but, no, it's in Ohio. A little town called Peak.
Peak is a town which resonates with the Nina Simone song, "Strange Fruit." The trees in the town's orchard strain under the weight of young black men.
We meet three black women--mothers all, and friends: Ruth and Sage and Patricia.
- Ruth, the central character, has just lost a son to lynching.
- We soon learn that Patricia's daughter, Nia, is pregnant with the lynched boy's child.
- Sage had sent her son "away with his father" to save him, but now he has returned, a grown man, and he's working for the Police Department, which Sage cannot forgive. She disowns him.
The town is doom for young blacks. We find that Nia has never been to church because years ago the churches were all burnt down "when they became targets". The custom is, when a youth is lynched, to give the noose to the mother to hang by her door as a sort of "Gold Star Mother" sign. After the lynching the black community burns down that particular tree in the orchard.
As the play progresses we learn, in subtle tiny bits, of a pact that these (and other?) black women made long ago: rather than let their children be killed by whites they would throw their babies into the river. And they did. (More or less).
But playwright Andie Berry chooses not to explore this dystopic scene in detail. Instead we follow the strains and conflicts of the three women and their children as they face the immediate challenges of the pregnancy and the son-become-cop--and of the attentions of two white men:
- Young Kyle is a white schoolmate of the pregnant Nia, and he's quite in love with her.
- Haverford is a white preacher who had been building a church by hand, but now is dismantling it; he's long been smitten with Ruth.
The cast is very strong. Michell Miller is superb as Ruth. Her lovely voice carries an authentic warm southern sound. She holds our hearts as she blends her mourning for her son with her nurturant compassion for young Nia.
Sage is played by Ebby Offord, who gives her wonderful power. Patricia is level-headed and somehow more modern and practical than her friends; she is beautifully played by Tiffany Powell. Angela Alexander plays the daughter Nia and makes her both strong and vulnerable.
Zack Schultz gives us a loving but troubled Haverford. Alex Felder plays Noah, the policeman son, and clearly shows his pain and frustration in his efforts to reconcile with his mother. Noah Weiner adds the brightest touch of comedy as Kyle; his animated adolescent awkwardness when he brings a pie to the family after the lynching is most endearing.
The remarkable set is by Yin Li, a senior architecture student. We see the kitchen, a bedroom and the front stoop of Ruth's home -- different levels, no walls. Thus far it's a conventional modern stage design. But draping over the entire house is a tangle of what look like massive intertwined mangrove roots. They look so very real! They convey a sense of swamp, of net, of entanglement. It is a quite unforgettable image.
The play's scenes occur in several different locations--Ruth's home, Patricia's home, the police station, and (I think) Sage's home. So it's just a tad confusing to use one set, with almost no changes. Also the script suffers a little from that common affliction of young modern playwrights--the proliferation of many short scenes in various locations. It's a cinematic impulse. But under the skilled hand of director Annamaria Pileggi these considerations constitute no major problem.
The play is lyrical, sometimes touching the poetic. (A few speeches have just a tinge of "purple.") In the opening moments the entire cast participates in a kind of choral reading standing still as statues. There is lovely inclusion of music; at one point Ms. Miller sings a kind of Spiritual: "There's a man goin' 'round takin' names." It's deeply moving.
Often, during scene breaks, we hear running water: the river that carried away those babies.
Son of Soil is not a didactic play. It's not even a protest play in the normal sense. Some things in it are merely sketched: the details and extent of the lynching culture, the fate of the churches, the origin and the abandoning of the baby-drowning pact, the history of the relationship between Haverford and Ruth. But sometimes a brief touch, a hint can pique our interest and can be dramatically very effective. It's a thought-provoking play. How do the motives and social effects of abortion compare to the mothers drowning their babies?
Overall Son of Soil by Andie Berry is a very fine piece of theater. It played at the Hotchner Studio Theater at Washington University March 30 through April 2, 2017.