A tragicomedy by local playwright and University of Texas professor Lisa B. Thompson, “Monroe” opened at Austin Playhouse Sept. 7. Although this production is a premiere, Thompson germinated an earlier draft of the script while in graduate school decades ago, according to a recent interview.
After entering and winning Austin Playhouse’s Festival of New Texas Plays contest earlier this year, Thompson (author of acclaimed off-Broadway show “Single Black Female”) was approached by artistic director Lara Toner Haddock who immediately requested the title. The result is a collaboration that opens the Playhouse’s 19th season in its theater at the ACC Highland Campus.
Monroe, Louisiana is a real town in Ouachita Parish and the homeplace of Thompson’s family prior to their move to California in the 1940s as well as the dramatic setting for the play. At the time it was a stronghold of Jim Crow, a doctrine brutally enforced by lynch-mobs. By placing the play in 1946, Thompson situates her personal family narrative squarely on top of the the broader story of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the south after WWII.
“Monroe” begins with a lynching that burns with familiarity — both for its characters and an audience who has come to recognize the signals of that particular racial violence in the not-too-past southern past. For the inhabitants of “Monroe,” however, the future is not already here, and the decisions of their lives must discern a path to a better world.
Deja Morgan anchors the play as its pious heroine, Cherry Henry, a young woman who believes herself to be impregnated by immaculate conception following the murder of her brother. Morgan exudes the certainty of youth and cultivates humorous and poignant beats expertly in a cultural context where her zealotry cannot be so easily dismissed. Her love interest, the exuberant Clyde James (Kriston Woodreaux), can abide Louisiana no longer after he has endured cutting down his best friend (Cherry’s brother) and plans to escape to San Francisco as soon as he can convince Cherry to come along. Woodreaux and Morgan are electric together, sweet without saccharinity — rather like the pies for which she is locally famous.
Ma Henry (Carla Nickerson), Cherry’s imperious grandmother, represents an older generation’s skepticism about moving out of the small communities that had sustained African American life through generations of oppression. Presiding over her front porch (a focal point of Mike Toner’s scenic design), Nickerson and Toner Haddock elevate Ma Henry to resemble a tragic queen of Greek drama, poised in front of her palace.
Taji Senior’s stand-in performance as cousin Viola proved a last-minute treat for the first weekend of the run. Easily sliding into the role as a relative who has taken on airs since recently transplanted herself to Chicago, Senior’s timing and emotional depth were faultless even as she glanced occasionally at her lines. Crystal Bird Caviel will resume the role of Viola for the duration of the run.
“Monroe” follows in the long tradition of writers making Louisiana mythic: the sacrosanct Jupiter Pond, cars that roll through town like demigods, ambrosial baked goods, and even Cherry, who considers herself the true “conduit” between the soil of Louisiana and the Almighty. Like all myths, parables, and piecemeal histories — all of which appellations apply here — the details matter.
What seems at first an extraneous character, the local white physician Dr. Wyland (Huck Huckaby) who assures Cherry unequivocally that she could not be pregnant without “having been with a man,” may also be an intervention. It’s a remarkable inversion of a stage tradition that so often called for the sole Black character to serve purpose and then disappear altogether.
Along the same vein, the warnings of the Henry family and those of his friend Seymore (the hilarious Marc Pouhé) who may in fact “see more” than anyone else, suggest that Clyde will also be the victim of the mob.
That, however, is not Thompson’s tack. Handled with Toner Haddock’s care and the entire productions’ sharp minds, Monroe’s intervention does not dwell on injustice but rather celebrates the courage and the faith of the generation that bravely imagined a better future.