PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill
It’s not wise to travel on a river when the water’s deeply troubled by a storm and the night is far from over. But as the enigmatic, soulful griot Selah informed the audience on opening night of the new music-theater work Leaving Eden, sometimes people do not have any other choice.
It is a heavy crossing indeed that playwright Mike Wiley takes us through in this drama about the cyclical history of racial and ethnic violence in the American South. The elemental lyrics of folk songwriter Laurelyn Dossett lead us up the brackish backwater between the Black River and Cape Fear in southeastern North Carolina. Eventually, we reach our very own heart of darkness, or one of them, at any rate: a fictional town in which an early-twentieth-century cotton mill and a present-day pork-processing plant have imposed different forms of economic servitude on generations of poor, undereducated minorities and a rising tide of undocumented laborers.
The biggest irony is that this town was built, as Selah (a potent Tangela Large) notes, by freed former slaves. By the time we get there, it has fully earned its portentous name, Marah, which means “bitter” in Hebrew. Small wonder that Gabriel (Ray Dooley), the curmudgeonly proprietor of a Main Street junk emporium, calls the town “the ass crack of the state.”
But just as Roy White (Jeffrey Blair Cornell), a tea party candidate promising “countywide immigration reform” puts a measure on the ballet to banish undocumented aliens from Marah, one woman’s connection to the two troubled eras Eden explores presents a new possibility for social justice. Reports of a coming hurricane stir up the addled memories of an earlier storm in the mind of Ms. Maggie (Rebecca Guy), a 101-year-old woman at the end of her life. The flood of ’33 killed most of the town’s black population. Though she’s long since buried the memory, Ms. Maggie is the only one still alive who knows they didn’t die from the storm.
Wiley’s characters bear witness to the cycles of racial violence. When Rev. Jackson (Trevor Johnson) says of the mark around his throat, “I got it walking Edmund Pettus in ’65,” Selah echoes, “I got it being lynched in Wilmington in 1898 … Got it being chained in the hull of La Amistad in 1839.”
Wiley’s meticulous research and director Vivienne Benesch’s vivid staging resurrects the Red ShirtsNorth Carolina’s own racial storm troopers, who terrorized black voters across the state in the elections of 1898 and 1900set to Dossett’s grim song “The Riot of the Bitter Few.” But if it only takes a few to stir up ancient fears, Leaving Eden shows, it sometimes only takes a few to begin stilling troubled waters.