Last Saturday, opening night of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Leaving Eden — written by Mike Wiley and directed by Vivienne Benesch, with music and lyrics by Laurelyn Dossett — began with the offstage rhythm of a strong tribal drumbeat and ended with a standing ovation from the near-sellout crowd. Between the initial beating of the drum and the final bows, the company delivers a fast-paced, riveting, and entertaining feast of food-for-thought.
Set in the fictional town of Marah, NC, Leaving Eden tells two parallel stories — one that culminates in tragedy in 1933 and another that is coming to a head in 2016 and could easily end just as tragically. In performance, these stories unfold in a fashion that intricately interweaves them, seamlessly leading us back and forth between the two, and effectively delivering both narratives simultaneously.
The conflict in each of these stories is driven by fear and hatred, by false assumptions and snap-judgments. The victims in both stories are minorities and the younger generation that is trying to live in a more “open,” “natural,” “innocent,” and loving fashion.
Integral to the telling of these stories are two characters who exist pretty much “outside the action.” One is Selah (played by Tangela Large’s, who is clothed in costume suggesting traditional West African dress and blocked frequently to take center-stage. She acts as narrator of the piece.
Students of West African culture will recognize this character as a griot (defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “A member of a class of travelling poets, musicians, and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa.”) Griots often employ song and dance as they weave their stories and histories, thus imparting to them a “feel” as well telling the story on a verbal level. Tangela Large’s portrayal of Selah is masterful.
The other such character is Ms. Maggie (played by Rebecca Guy). In 2016, Ms. Maggie is 101 years old and confined to a wheelchair. Her first memorable line is “I don’t want no colored nurse,” and she periodically repeats two ominous phrases: “Run to the river,” and “Tragic what I done,” thereby functioning almost as a secondary narrator.
Rebecca Guy’s Ms. Maggie is appropriately crusty and curmudgeonly, with just the right hint of vulnerability. Ms. Maggie’s wheelchair has been placed in an upstage right corner, thereby establishing that she is “above” (and therefore “presiding over”) the action and, at the same time, peripheral to it.
A third actor who links the two stories is Sarah Elizabeth Keyes, who doubles as “Young Maggie” in 1933 and as Jillian in 2016. Each of these characters is pivotal to the action in their respective timeframes. While the two characters are similar and serve parallel functions, Keyes expertly delivers two distinct personalities.
Indeed, 12 of the eighteen actors in this piece play multiple roles — one or more in each of the timeframes. Even when the switch is effected onstage, involving only the subtlest of costume changes, there is never any doubt about the metamorphosis. The parallels and/or contrasts between the doubly-cast characters serve to reinforce the parallels and contrasts between the twin narratives. And we tip our hats to the entire cast for the ease with which they accomplish this.
While the show contains a plethora of memorable relationships and scenes, we feel inclined to give a shout-out to the recurring, almost stichomythic banter between Ray Dooley as Gabriel and Rishan Dhamija as Taj. Their scenes border on being well worth the price of admission all by themselves.
The script is rich in echoes of Western cultural tradition. The title of Leaving Eden suggests the biblical story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the paradise of the Garden of Eden. Indeed, Mike Wiley’s choice to name two of the characters Adam and Eve calls in this tradition. However, he turns the idea on its head by pointing out that Eden had been the name of the plantation (worked by slaves) where the town of Marah is located and also the name of the town’s 1933 cotton mill and of its 2016 pork-processing plant (both of which are shown to be shamelessly exploiting their workforce), effectively establishing a double-meaning of the expression, “Leaving Eden.”
The name of the town of Marah invokes the episode in the Book of Exodus of Marah, “the place of bitter waters” in which God helped Moses to make bitter water drinkable. Wisely, Wiley chooses to explicate this lesser-known story in the script. And he underscores the mosaic overtones by naming one of the characters Moses.
McKay Coble’s costume designs are impeccable, and designer Adam Bintz’s sound cues mesh wonderfully with the dialogue and with the music supplied by music director Laurelyn Dossett, whose guitar and vocals are joined by Daniel Faust on percussion, Scott “Scooter” Manring on guitar and banjo, and Genevieve Palmer on bass and violin.
The performance choices include elements of realism, surrealism, and expressionism. And these effects are augmented by the choreography by Tracey Bersley. This production team truly pulls out all the stops, and we heartily recommend that you attend this world premiere — it is a piece which, while created in and set in North Carolina, tells a specific story that conveys universal truths.
SECOND OPINION: April 5th Greensboro, NC News & Record preview by Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane: http://www.greensboro.com/go_triad/greensboro-s-laurelyn-dossett-pens-music-for-new-play-leaving/article_0956eefb-7db6-50ae-8202-2a12ed4b465a.html; April 4th Raleigh, NC Foxy 107.1-104.3 FM review by Karen Clark: https://foxync.com/823671/the-color-purple-review/; April 4th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/lessons-unlearned-in-mike-wileys-leaving-eden-a-tale-of-immigrant-rights-racial-strife-and-small-town-nc-politics/Content?oid=13040945; April 3rd Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Will Shropshire: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2018/04/leaving-eden-0403; April 3rd Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with playwright Mike Wiley, composer and music director Laurelyn Dossett, and actors Sarita Ocón and Carlos Alcala, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/post/history-repeats-itself-leaving-eden#stream/0; and March 8th Chapel Hill, NC Carolina Alumni Review preview by Beth McNichol ’95: https://alumni.unc.edu/news/step-into-those-shoes/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the April 5th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/04/leaving-eden-at-playmakers-rep-exposes-a-small-n-c-towns-racist-past-and-present/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents LEAVING EDEN, a world premiere by Mike Wiley, with music and lyrics by Laurelyn Dossett, at 7:30 p.m. April 10-13, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 14, 2 p.m. April 15, 7:30 p.m. April 17-20, and 2 p.m. April 21 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTO7D5FTc2o.
PRC NEWS RELEASE: http://playmakersrep.org/press/leaving-eden/.
2017-18 SEASON: https://playmakersrep.org/season/2017-2018-season/
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
WARNING: On its website, PlayMakers Rep writes, “Due to the subject matter, racially motivated violence, and the use of some racial slurs, we recommend this show for ages 13 and up [emphasis added].” PRC adds, “Please be advised [that] this production contains simulated gunshots, water-based haze and fog, and the smoking of herbal cigarettes on stage [emphasis added].”
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 3: There will be FREE post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 11th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 15th, performances.
NOTE 5: The North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show Mindplay psychoanalytic discussion on “A Hymn for Our Future,” led by Natalie Peacock-Corral, LCSW, after the 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22nd, performance.
Mike Wiley (Raleigh, NC playwright and actor): http://mikewileyproductions.com/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/mike-wiley/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1211650/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/mike.wiley.77 (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/mikewileyprods (Twitter page).
Laurelyn Dossett (Piedmont, NC composer and music director): http://www.laurelyndossett.com/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/laurelyn-dossett/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm6827261/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/laurelyn.dossett (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/LaurelynDossett (Twitter page).
Vivienne Benesch (director and PlayMakers Rep producing artistic director): http://playmakersrep.org/artists/vivienne-benesch/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/vivienne-benesch-69799 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0070924/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://www.facebook.com/vivienne.benesch (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.