In the taut and terrific new play “Mud Row” at People’s Light, characters who share a past history try mightily to exorcise it. They hide it or deny it or keep it tightly concealed inside them — if they try hard enough, maybe it will go away. But no matter what they do, it remains.
“We got to know how we got somewhere so we know how to get somewhere else,” one sister cautions another who cons a beau into believing she’s a black woman from a high-society set.
In fact, both women live sparingly in a West Chester, Pennsylvania, house bought by their late mother, a prostitute who’d saved her money to land it. The past will catch up with the social-climbing daughter, and also with her own daughters.
“Mud Row” spans three generations and even though we never meet the matriarch at the top of this family tree, we get to know her (and her house) as clearly as the characters on stage. That’s because playwright Dominique Morisseau gives us everything we need in context to follow this story of the family and the family house that’s been empty for five years and is up for sale.
Morisseau nimbly takes us back and forth through these generations, a risky time-warp device that works here so organically that after the first shift it’s hardly noticeable. In that warp, we see history in the foreground of these women’s lives: the Quaker influence that made West Chester an important station for the Underground Railroad; the civil rights era that brought out its African American residents and brought in the Klan; and the most recent time of new opportunity but also decay, drugs and crime.
Morisseau is both potent and versatile: Her work was seen here last summer in an on-the-nose People’s Light production of “Skeleton Crew,” about the disregard for factory workers in her native Detroit. In a completely different vein, she’s currently represented on Broadway by “Ain’t Too Proud,” the jukebox musical about the Temptations that won her a Tony nomination this year for writing its nimble script. The research that went into that, and also into “Mud Row,” pays off clearly, because both shows put their audiences on a historical trajectory that has meaning and urgency.
“Mud Row” was commissioned by People’s Light in Malvern as part of the stage company’s New Play Frontiers project, which taps nationally renowned playwrights to immerse themselves in neighboring communities and develop new plays about life there. (West Chester is a few minutes drive from Malvern.) The much-respected Morisseau, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellows “Genius” grant, was among the first group of writers commissioned in 2012.
People’s Light is giving “Mud Row” the classy world-premiere production it deserves. Steve H. Broadnax III, who directed “Skeleton Crew” and other shows for People’s Light, enhances Morisseau’s story with the swift way he chooses to tell it through careful, tense staging. His cast of six bright actors are all in their People’s Light debuts. Tiffany Rachelle Stewart and Gillian Glasco play the two sisters we first meet in the ‘60s, and they easily show the contrast between a social climber and a freedom fighter. In scenes from now, Nikkole Salter and Bjorn DuPaty are a successful couple, and Renika Williams and Eric Robinson Jr. come directly from the streets. That contrast is obvious, yet the actors give it nuance in a story that invites them to do so.
Shilla Benning’s costumes, like the story, span eras. Michael Carnahan’s interior set for the house works for both then and now, largely because Kathy Perkins’ lighting design makes the place feel newer in the old scenes and much older in the current ones.
“Mud Row” runs through July 28 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, Pennsylvania. 610-644-3500 or https://www.peopleslight.org/