Dominique Morisseau lets her audience know her roots right away. “I want to start by saying that I’m not from West Chester,” she writes in a program note for the locally set Mud Row, which has its world premiere at People’s Light in Malvern through July 28. “I’m from Detroit.”
This isn’t news to those familiar with the fast-rising writer’s work, which includes the lauded Skeleton Crew (seen at the same venue last summer) and Detroit ’67 (produced by Princeton’s McCarter Theatre this season). The magnitude of love she feels for her hometown is palpable — and she brings the same care, humor, and deep emotional connection to her portrait of life in the historically black enclave of Chester County that gives the play its title.
Mud Row unspools across two generations of sisters sharing similar resentments and uncertainties in the same house. In flashback, the socially minded Elsie (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) longs to marry into a respectable family and claim her place among the “Talented Tenth.” Firebrand Frances (Gillian Glasco) regards her sibling with affection but considers her frivolous. She turns her attention to the roiling civil rights movement.
Half a century later, businesswoman Regine (the remarkable Nikkole Salter) stands as a testament to everything Elsie, her grandmother, sought for herself. Now in possession of the homestead, she wants to sell it and wipe the slate clean — to the consternation of Toshi (Renika Williams), whose newfound sobriety had led her on a journey to claim her rightful place in the world.
Morisseau uses the generational divide — nicely demarcated by Shilla Benning’s period costumes and Kathy A. Perkins’ dreamlike lighting — to suggest how inherited traits, and traumas, affect an entire lineage. She also subtly, and without preaching, considers the hot-button issue of gentrification, grounding everything in character development. Regine’s desire to shed a painful past and Toshi’s quest for something firm to grasp on to speak volumes beyond these women’s individual experience.
Under Steve H. Broadnax III’s immaculate direction, the production similarly has a lot to say. Salter and Williams utterly convince in their strained sisterly bond, and although the relationship between Elsie and Frances is ever so slightly underdeveloped (and occasionally telegraphed), Stewart and Glasco tease out a true connection. The outstanding ensemble also includes Bjorn DuPaty and Eric Robinson Jr. as the men in Regine and Toshi’s lives.
Michael Carnahan’s stunning set design includes a wall of life-size photographs. Each square tells its own story, both inside and beyond the narrative — it’s a living record of the neighborhood. Morisseau captures this effect too in her writing. Every scene feels distinct, yet it’s also part of a tapestry that draws its viewer into the area’s past, present, and future.
Mud Row was commissioned by People’s Light as part of a series of plays that chronicle the spirit and history of the region. Morisseau gives exquisite voice to four women occupying the same four walls — and by doing so, an entire community sings.