A few weeks ago, a friend and I were having a bit of a debate about the state of classics in the theater. It seemed to him that more and more companies (he cited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) are fleeing from their mission to present classic works in favor of offering audiences world premiers or new plays. “There is no longer American repertory!” he proclaimed. I pushed back. Not to say he was wrong; he wasn’t. But I argued that classic work excludes the voices of non-cis-White-men. “The cannon is inherently white and male and there is nothing we can do about that!” I share this story because Quintessence Theatre proved me wrong. Handily.
Angelina Weld Grimké’s 1916 Rachel is undoubtedly a work of incredible importance to American theatrical history and American history writ large. It is also exactly the type of work that should be getting the kind of classical consideration needed to place it in (to quote my friend) “the American repertory.” Written as a response to D.W. Giffith’s ahistorical, KKK-glorifying The Birth of a Nation, Rachel was commissioned by the NAACP and promoted as “race propaganda.” It soon became the first play by an African American playwright performed before an integrated audience. (Much of this is paraphrased from the wonderful contextual notes of dramaturg Megan Schumacher.)
Rachel is of its time and not. As early 20th century agitprop, it is not surprising that some of its political messaging can be didactic or that its secondary characters can be underdeveloped. What is surprising is the absolute joy and tenderness rendered in its main characters. Likely, to render sympathy for its subject, Grimke tells the countless struggles of early 20th century Black Americans through the lens of motherhood. As the show’s matriarch, Mrs. Mary Loving (affectionately referred to as “Ma Dear”) is expertly played by Zuhairah McGill. With both loving exasperation and sorrowful wisdom, she begins the play carrying the burden of racism for her family. As the show progresses in time, her children Rachel (Jessica Johnson) and Thomas (Travoye Joyner) take on this burden.
In a uniformly excellent cast, Johnson is astonishing. Her transformation from buoyant girlishness into adulthood grounds the play. Through her performance, the tragedy of Rachel becomes not the horrifying historical anecdotes that pepper the play, but her own character’s journey. To hope or to be hopeless in the face of unrelenting cruelty, is the major question of Rachel. Johnson tackles this head-on. I cannot remember a performance that is at once so joyous and so raw.
Alexandra Espinoza’s direction also helps guide the play past its imperfections. It is clear that she worked with the cast to give embodied performances. This works especially well in Nathan Alford-Tate’s performance of the much-younger Jimmy Mason. All of these characters, no matter how thinly sketched, feel lived in. Espinoza knows how to create stunning stage pictures. We are given impressionistic moments at the start of the play and at the end of each act. Marie Laster’s set and Carmel Brown’s costumes effectively root the play in its time period. Both Daniel Ison’s sound design and Natalie Robin’s lights work in both naturalistic and theatrical moments.
This play, written over 100 years ago, practically yells at us in the present. As the timeline in the Sedgewick Theater lobby shows, we are still faced with countless acts of racist violence and brutality on a seemingly endless loop. The play doesn’t offer much in terms of answers. And frankly, it’s heartbreaking that questions being asked in 1916 are just as relevant today. I am grateful that Quintessence Theatre gave us the opportunity to bear witness.
[Quintessence Theatre at the Sedgewick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue] January 29-February 29, 2020; quintessencetheatre.org/rachel