Definition Theatre Company at the Den Theatre. By Mercedes White. Directed by Alana Arenas. With White, Kelson Michael McAuliffe, Julian Parker, Tyrone Phillips, Tiffany Addison, Kiandra Layne. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
In Chicago, 1918, Walter (Tyrone Phillips) and Lena (Mercedes White, also the playwright) have migrated from the South to pursue a better life, and their efforts are paying off—Walter takes pride in his job building railroads, and Lena is pregnant with their first child. With good friends nearby, a promotion up for grabs and a baby on the way, the pair seem poised to achieve the American Dream—if nothing goes wrong.
As a self-styled prequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the ambitions and style of Genesis loom before the curtain rises: the history of the African-American family, dreams and prosperity in a hostile country, race and racism and love. In 1959 it was groundbreaking; now it’s well-trodden ground. From the opening heady speeches and big dreams of its characters, it's clear Definition Theatre sets its sights on creating an encompassing, spiritual work.
White's dialogue is snappy, often comical, and well delivered. The play has worthy comments on systematic oppression, soulful monologues, and some particularly insightful moments when an Irish immigrant is brought into the fold. Yet it begins to struggle against the reality that we’ve heard all this before.
And therein lies the big issue: Genesis sounds good, it’s performed well, but it feels familiar without being specific. The historical setting plays no demonstrable role except to be pre–civil rights. In fact, very few outside forces affect the family at all. This ends up reducing the stakes of those challenges that do come at them. The difficulties lack terror, the arguments lack fury. Happy families are all alike, and they are all rather uninteresting. So at the end of the day, it has to fall back on old devices to advance the plot.
Genesis feels too comfortable for its turbulent subject matter, more a paint-by-numbers piece than a creative experience.