I’m disappointed by the lack of a program note in the Playbill. Nothing from the playwright (Nathan Alan Davis). Nothing from the dramaturg (Anna Morton Stacy). Nothing from the director (Patricia McGregor). While there is a note from the Interim Artistic Director of Roundabout Theatre Company (Scott Ellis), it does not suffice. Now, I will write what I wish someone would’ve told me beforehand.
Perhaps you’re coming to this play with a curiosity about the title—The Refuge Plays. I did (too). But you moved past that because you saw the striking image of an entire family, over 70 years and several generations, photographed beautifully. And for some reason photographers seem to struggle with photographing Black people, so you’re especially enamored by a well-lit group of Black people artfully arranged and posing as family. Maybe it was the three-hour and 30-minute runtime that you noticed. A moment of panic fills your mind, but you remember finishing that beloved streaming show in a single day so who are you to complain? Alas, it could have very well been Nathan Alan Davis himself. You could have seen Nat Turner in Jerusalem at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), and left the theater thinking “I’ve got to follow this guy’s work.” I did (too). Or maybe you’re coming to this play because someone kept mentioning something about Dontell, Who Kissed the Sea and you finally read the play. And then, ah yes! it clicks, 1/3 of the way through, that it was the same writer whose work you saw back in 2016 at NYTW.
Regardless, you are curious about the show. It’s important to know that you’re going to someone’s home. It’s their sacred place of residence. Sometimes we forget that. We are still rehabilitating our theatergoing practices as a collective. It’s okay to be rusty. But at the Laura Pels Theatre, we are visiting a Black family’s home. We must take off our cool at the door and get comfortable. Someone was vulnerable enough to tell us about that one-time they gave birth. And then that one time they lost a loved one. And that one time they became a ghost. Our only job is to listen. No wine to bring nor dish to prepare. What a gift.
Like much of his work, Nathan Alan Davis is writing in a Black literary tradition that involves care and a deep love for Black people. I think of August Wilson and Mfoniso Udofia and Marcus Gardley and Ama Ata Aidoo and Dennis Scott & & &. The dialogue in The Refuge Plays isn’t strictly theatrical. It’s disciplined literature. I think, too, of poetry. There’s Jericho Brown and Amaud Johnson and June Jordan and Gwendolyn Brooks & & &.
There’s a chance that the language goes over your head, so you’re there for the feeling. You zone out of it sometimes, like I did, when you see actor Jessica Frances Duke onstage— jealous that you don’t get to watch her act every day. She’s mesmerizing. There are other cast members that leave retina burns like Jerome Preston Bates as someone’s husband and Nicole Ari Parker as someone’s grandmother and Jon Michael Williams as someone’s father and Lance Coadie Williams as someone’s brother. Their ways with character are captivating. Despite the passing hours, we’re grateful enough they opened the door at such a late hour—at such a private hour.
If you’re a visual learner, you would appreciate Emilio Sosa’s costumes. You would take to the music composition for the way Marc Anthony Thompson and Imani Uzuri lull us to relax but not to sleep; to be suspicious but not afraid. There’s no radio in the play, but everything sounds familiar comfortable.
If you do read the Artistic Director’s note, one thing is gravely missing: an explanation on refuge. In a world where we are witnessing the globalization of the world in all its glory and horror, it’s important not to forget that there are still Black people seeking refuge, i,e.
n. shelter or protection from danger or distress
There’s a reason that this play occurs 70 years, and at least five generations. Beyond American chattel slavery, and Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, and Mass Incarceration, there is a spiritual world that Black Americans have sought refuge towards in tandem with our seeking safety here on Earth. That, too, is why it is a set of plays and not The Refuge Play. One play would be unjust to such a divine capturing of the Black American experience. Perhaps you are spiritual. I am (too). And are moved by the idea of a ghost telling Gail (the aforementioned sublime Dukes) she will pass away within a day.
Regardless of why you are here, or on your way, or even contemplating visiting The Refuge Plays, it is a good decision you made. Because the point of theater may be universality, but it’s more important to recognize the specificity. This story is specific to a people’s journey, a Black people’s journey. So if the marketing, and my retelling feels a bit elusive, that’s out of respect for the journey. But the great thing about theater is that the reason you choose to go and stay, is any reason that’s specific to you.