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Reviewed by:
  • The Trinity River Plays
  • Colleen Daniher
The Trinity River Plays. By Regina Taylor. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Dallas Theater Center and Goodman Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Chicago. 16 January 2011.

The search for rootedness links the three plays that comprise Regina Taylor's The Trinity River Plays: Jarfly, Rain, and Ghoststory. Centered on the psychic and physical separation from and eventual return of Iris Spears to her family, Taylor's trilogy uses roots as a central metaphor to understand the cyclical yet sustaining role that family plays in the life of an individual. At a combined running time of over three hours, Taylor's digging spreads itself wide, but perhaps not deep enough. And yet, in its refusal to conceptualize "roots" beyond the myopic world of the Spears family unit, the trilogy speaks to a political present that is increasingly unwilling to address race as a framework that continues to structure everyday life, including the everyday experience of family relations.

Set in the declining years of the civil rights and Black Power movements and in the long shadow of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's pathologizing condemnation of the black family in 1965, the


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Karen Aldridge (Iris) in The Trinity River Plays. (Photo: Brandon Thibodeaux.)

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Karen Aldridge (Iris), Jacqueline Williams (Daisy), Jefferson A. Russell (Ray Earl), and Christiana Clark (Jasmine) in The Trinity River Plays. (Photo: Brandon Thibodeaux.)

Goodman production staged a strange elision of race politics, even as it took the black matriarchal family as its central focus. What resulted was a production caught between performing a multigenerational story of black women's struggle and continued survival and insisting that this story transcend race. As staged by director Ethan McSweeny, this latest offering from Taylor, one of the nation's leading African American playwrights and performers, thus provoked critical reflection on the influence of colorblind thinking on contemporary African American theatre.

The three plays follow Iris (Karen Aldridge) for seventeen years, from the morning of her seventeenth birthday in 1978 (Jarfly) to her return visit home to Oak Cliff, Dallas in 1995 (Rain). Upon the discovery of her mother Rose's diagnosis of terminal ovarian cancer, Iris's visit turns into an extended stay that carries over into the aftermath of her mother's passing (Ghoststory). Two major occurrences punctuate the extended narrative as it unfolds over the three plays: the rape of Iris by her uncle Ray Earl on her seventeenth birthday in Jarfly, and the aforementioned diagnosis of Iris's mother with advanced-stage ovarian cancer seventeen years later in Rain. The last play in the trilogy, Ghoststory, sees Iris reconcile with her ex-husband Frank, as well as come to terms with her mother's death with the help of her Aunt Daisy and cousin Jasmine. The seventeen-year chronology of the plays reflects the seventeen-year lifespan of the cicada, or jarfly, whose symbolic death and rebirth is mapped onto the "bug-eyed" Iris.

Guided by Taylor's script, the Goodman production exhibited the realist aesthetics of the self-contained domestic drama; the set design by Todd Rosenthal was meticulously detailed, from the downstage garden in which Iris and Rose actually dig up soil, to the unanswered whistling kettle that signaled the decline of Iris's mother. This realism highlighted the almost tyrannical ordinariness with which Taylor and McSweeny imbued the Spears family. As necessitated by the physical environment, Aunt Daisy (Jacqueline Williams) was forever cooking or washing in the kitchen, while Rose (Penny Johnson Jerald) seemed to spend her days playing the piano and gardening. While the sustained focus on domestic rituals effectively established the Spears family as one "like any other," the relentlessness of the generic quotidian threatened to overshadow what was most compelling about the Goodman production—namely, the particular ways in which race informed the Spears family's relations and traumas.

Indeed, the most moving moments of the evening occurred when the production engaged the cultural [End Page 643] specificity of its themes, as, for example, when the gospel rounds punctuating the scenic transitions sounded the bond among Iris, her mother, her cousin, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-332X
Print ISSN
0192-2882
Pages
pp. 642-644
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-06
Open Access
No
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