The Tulsa Oklahoma race riots of 1921 devastated the prosperous Greenwood section of the city famously known as the “Black Wall Street.” That terrible event, during which the local sheriff and bands of whites destroyed homes and businesses, was allegedly the result of an assault on a white woman by a black man and lasted for two days. It also provides the historic background and the inspiration for Nikkole Salter’s new domestic drama, “Repairing a Nation,” now at the Crossroads Theater.
Set in 2001, 80 years after the riots, also known as the Greenwood massacre, the play focuses on the trouble created by the fictitious Davis family’s most contentious member. Lois Davis (Stephanie Berry) is a confirmed outsider whose unsettling visit to the home of her cousin Chuck (Phil McGlaston) and his wife Anna (Chantal Jean-Pierre) during the Christmas holidays brings the subject of reparations into sharp relief and with it a very personal focus.
For starters, Lois wants them to become involved in a class action suit instituted by members of the community seeking reparations from the government on behalf of the riots’ survivors and kin. Long-standing, deep-seated animosities, regrets, and hostilities surface with increased tenacity as Lois, a semi-estranged, economically challenged, political activist makes no excuses for herself nor does she pretend any love or even affection for her wealthy cousins despite her unapologetic attempt to get Chuck, as head of the family, to sign a document in support of a congressional proposal to study reparations for African Americans.
Also present is Lois’ son Seth (Landon G. Woodson), an NYU student raised by Anna and Chuck and whose relationship with his feisty mother is, at its best, strained. And helping Lois in her cause is Seth’s former girlfriend, a community advocate currently working with a local cultural center to unveil a memorial that remembers the two-day riot.
As the Davis family becomes engaged in extended talks of cause and recourse, revenge, and healing, it appears to come quite understandably as a typical response in the wake and immediacy of 9/11. But that is only alluded to.
It is the community’s suit for reparations that serves as the springboard for Salter’s characters to become more heatedly embroiled in a disturbing recriminations and disclosures that may, indeed, involve past deceptions, lies, and now the very real possibility of reparations among the immediate family members. The Davis family business, a successful janitorial service, survived the riots, but who actually inherited and owns it comes under question when an old newspaper article/photo comes to light.
While the actors have a tendency to direct their speeches, quite a lot of it is unnecessarily expository (the playwright’s device), directly to the audience (a directorial decision by Marshal Jones III to be sure), the performances are, however, vividly realized. Most impressive is Berry, as the proudly snippy and snide Lois. McGlaston is excellent as the blustery and fiercely defensive Chuck, while Jean-Pierre gets points for being more beautiful and conciliatory than her husband deserves. Moore is charming as the perky Debbie and Woodson quite fine as the conflicted Seth.
Salter, whose co-written play “In the Continuum” was a Pulitzer Prize nominee and won the 2005 Outer Critics Circle award for Outstanding New American Play, has written this play to dramatically expand upon an actual congressional bill that has never made it to committee, despite the fact that it is proposed year after year. How great for Salter that her plays do make it past committee and get onto the stage: four premieres this season with “Repairing a Nation” being her first to be produced at the Crossroads Theater Company.
Repairing a Nation, Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, March 8. $25 to $45. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.