We all hope that family will be one of the great blessings in our lives. But sometimes, as many an artful playwright has demonstrated, family can be a curse.
From William Shakespeare in King Lear to Tracy Letts in August: Osage County, from Eugene O’Neill in Long Day’s Journey into Night to August Wilson in The Piano Lesson, great dramatists keep offering up their own versions of a fundamental truth: No one can wound us quite so deeply as those with whom we share blood ties.
Darren Canady, a gifted young playwright who teaches at the University of Kansas, won the 2012 Osborn New Play Award for Brothers of the Dust, a rich and searing drama set in 1958 rural Arkansas. Earthy and observant, the play isn’t a masterwork, but it is an engaging, sometimes amusing, ultimately powerful piece about the disintegration of an extended black family.
M Ensemble and director André L. Gainey have just opened a fine, wonderfully acted production of Brothers of the Dust at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse. Miami’s oldest theater company isn’t always qualitatively consistent, but this show is a gem that gets folks in the audience oohing and hooting.
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Canady’s play is set on a family cotton farm worked by Roy Colton (Keith C. Wade), his wife Mayetta (Charita Coleman) and their high school-age son Jack (Roderick Randle). Roy’s late parents left the simple house and land to him, but also to his brothers Wilson (Darryl Vaughn) and Ollie (Mcley Lafrance). But Roy is the only brother who stayed, while Wilson and his wife Nella (Brandiss Seward) went off to run a store in a bigger town, and Ollie moved to Chicago to try to make it as a writer.
Suddenly, though, the prodigal brothers return, infuriating the taciturn, unwelcoming Roy. Wilson is working a deal with a guy from Standard Oil for survey rights to the land. On the verge of bankruptcy, he sees a potential windfall, and he calls Ollie home to reinforce his claim. Roy thinks his brothers should mind their own business and vanish, despite the deed listing all three as owners; as he tells Wilson, “I ain’t broke my back so you can walk around like you somebody.”
Beyond the resonant script, M Ensemble’s Brothers of the Dust really connects because of the excellent ensemble work of its cast.
Wade’s Roy is a hard, stubborn man for whom it’s tough to summon sympathy, but in the waning moments of the play, he breaks your heart. Coleman’s guarded exterior masks Mayetta’s loneliness, but she’s no doormat: In her own way, she’s as tough as Roy. Vaughn gets Wilson’s manipulative ruthlessness, and Seward is his more amusing match. Her delivery is pricelessly withering as she surveys the summer dress worn by Ollie’s sometime girlfriend and comments, “That is so … creative.”
Lafrance makes Ollie a charming, lusty bad boy with secrets. As editor Audra Thorpe, Ollie’s frequently betrayed boss and squeeze, Ashlee Thomas gets the rich city girl’s condescension just right. Randle makes Jack, whose college dreams are always shut down by Roy, a restless young man on the cusp of escape.
Greed, betrayal and near tragedy figure into Brothers of the Dust, as do sometimes-raunchy language and sexually frank talk that sounds like a stretch for the late ’50s. But Canady’s promising voice filtered through seven strong actors makes M Ensemble’s production a compelling exploration of family dysfunction and treachery.