Austin Playhouse's Monroe

In Lisa B. Thompson's tender drama, young African-Americans work out where they belong in the world

Kriston Woodreaux and Deja Morgan (Courtesy of Austin Playhouse)

In the dim first light of Lisa B. Thompson's Monroe, given its world premiere by Austin Playhouse, we see Kriston Woodreaux as Clyde James step to the front of the stage and mime throwing his arms around some object and holding it tight. Might it be some tree in the northern Louisiana town that gives the play its name? A post holding up a small, homey porch like the one just at his back? There's no way to be sure. It's only when this young black man pulls a knife from his pants and begins furiously sawing at something above his head while still using an arm to support the invisible object that he embraced that it comes clear, to our horror: He's cutting down the victim of a lynching. This, Thompson wants to make clear right away, is the world through which this play's characters move: rich in Southern tradition and very dangerous for African-Americans.

The victim, we learn, was Jefferson Henry, Clyde's best friend and brother to Cherry, a young woman that Clyde has his eye on, so Jefferson's killing casts a shadow over this play as long as one of the painted cypress trees that stand sentinel at the corners of the stage. Thompson doesn't dwell on the murder as she tightens her focus on Cherry and Clyde, but it's felt whenever Jefferson's name is spoken and characters are urged to walk with care. And when Clyde insists, "I can't get far enough from here," you can sense that he isn't just looking to shake the dust of this small hometown off his boots.

Clyde is desperate to get out of Monroe – he has visions of California, which Woodreaux unspools as dreamily as if he was talking about Heaven – but he's just as desperate to win the heart of (or at least a kiss from) Cherry. His wooing of her, with Woodreaux buzzing around Deja Morgan's Cherry like a bee around a blossom, all teasing eyes and mischievous smiles, is a joy to watch and damn near irresistible.

The thing is, Cherry can resist Clyde. She's preoccupied with a matter of her own, a very profound matter: She believes that God has chosen her to bear a child, like Mary, without lying with a man. However unlikely that notion may seem to you, for this very devout young woman in 1946 Louisiana, it's the only explanation that makes sense for her having missed her period. And the modesty and innocence that Morgan projects make it real, for her and for us. The possibility that she might be pregnant through divine intervention forces Cherry to wrestle with what her purpose in life might be. That's a struggle common to teens, but in centering it on a matter of faith, Thompson adds a welcome weight to the question and an unexpected complexity to the romance between Cherry and Clyde.

As these two try to determine where they belong, they hear from a handful of intimates with their own ideas. Dispensing matriarchal wisdom and dictating propriety in all matters is Cherry's grandmother, a sweetly tart Carla Nickerson baked with equal helpings of righteousness and irascibility. Her foil is Viola, a young one who's already made her escape from Monroe but whose Chicago lifestyle doesn't meet the approval of "Ma" Henry. Crystal Brid Caviel takes a devilish delight in touting the "virtues" of the South Side and singing the blues, and worldliness wafts off her Vi like perfume. Lending an ear to Clyde is bartender Seymour Jones, played by Marc Pouhé with a wealth of good cheer. Watching them on the porch that looks as if designer Mike Toner pulled it out of a folk art painting, under the violet provided by Chris Conard, and listening to the vintage blues and gospel recordings carefully curated by sound designer Robert Fisher, we are transported to this distant time and place. Thompson, director Lara Toner Haddock, and this company have shaped what feels like a true community. It's a fine place for figuring out where you fit in the world, and with whom.


Austin Playhouse at ACC Highland campus, 6001 Airport, 512/476-0084
Through Sept. 30
Running time: 1 hr., 45 min.

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Austin Playhouse, Lara Toner Haddock, Lisa B. Thompson, Deja Morgan, Kriston Woodreaux, Carla Nickerson, Marc Pouhé, Crystal Bird Caviel, Huck Huckaby, Mike Toner, Robert Fisher, Chris Conard

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