A new play in and for Seattle looks at established community networks, and the drive and ambitions of those being pushed out. Riverwood runs through Sunday at Langston Hughes in the Central District, then performs June 17-26 at Seattle Public Theater at Green Lake.
You know, a little support might help make things happen, ladies!
My support was gonna do about as much as that five-year-old bra you’ve got on right there.
— Veteran teacher Barbara Howard, checking the crusading optimism of newer teacher Janine Teagues, in Quinta Brunson’s TV comedy Abbott Elementary
In Riverwood, the smart and observant new play by Andrew Lee Creech, the Seattle stage gets its own Janine-and-Barbara dynamic. Reminiscent of the veteran teacher in Quinta Brunson’s Abbott Elementary (the best thing on TV this year), Riverwood‘s no-nonsense building manager and de facto matriarch Miss Penny is stuck being the grounded and world-weary voice to some of her younger, more starry-eyed tenants. As outside developers bear down on their complex, the soon-to-be-displaced residents want her support. Whatever her own views, she knows the new owners “developing” the rundown complex are a tide beyond her control.
Unwilling to throw up their hands, here, as in Abbott, the hopeful (or naive) youngsters look to the world-wisened (and hardened) for advice. Usually, the path forward lies somewhere in the middle.
Riverwood centers on a network of five Black people, congregating and passing through the courtyard of the Riverwood Park Apartments. Where they might have been acquaintances of convenience in another place and time, these five look very much like chosen family. That means they fight (usually with words, although there’s one slap-fest that looks like a cut from Jerry Springer), they disapprove, they bolster each other up, and they’re invited in for Sunday dinner, no matter what stressors are on them. Local hints place them somewhere in the vicinity of 23rd and Jackson; but aside from the doomed Red Apple Market nearby and a fear of getting pushed out to Auburn or Kent, there isn’t too much that binds it here. (Ironically, the only Riverwood complex I can find nearby is in Kent.) It’s at once a Seattle story and an anywhere story.
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In Riverwood, the characters are drawn by their present circumstances — we don’t get much backstory or family ties — but played with complexity. It’s the here and now Riverwood is most concerned with; the characters’ motivations, dreams, and paths forward form the drama, with only a couple drops of backstory to color those in.
And so the only place we’re taken is the Riverwood courtyard which, like a stage, is both a pass-through and the place where their stories unfold. It’s there that the Riverwood characters gather to socialize, complain, get drunk, share the day’s news, or plot about the future. Familiarity is established through action. The day marches on as the characters pass through. Direction by Shermona Mitchell is a gift, both in the familial and familiar intimacy that’s shown and not told, and in keeping it moving.
Miss Penny is the unchallenged matriarch of the place, hollering out to the courtyard at late-night noise violations and dishing out opinions as reliably as her Sunday dinners. It’s never clear how old she is; but it is clear her body has begun to slow her down long before her ambition would have it. A thoughtful portrayal by Rebecca M. Davis is perfect for this role. Davis’ Miss Penny is a mix of contrasts — languid and sharp-witted, steadfast and weary, stone-faced and warm — that feels more relatable than caricature. It’s her backstory that we eventually get the most of; but then, she’s got the most backstory to tell.
At the opposite end is Dedra, embodied by Ayo Tushinde, a young woman willing to slog through her corporate retail job to pay the bills — until the powers that be attack her hair style as “unprofessional” and against some policy no one can produce. Her character is full of opinions, quick with a protest (a sign aimed at developers that simply reads “DIE” is a fine example), and eager to hatch a plan toward a new dream. But here we do miss the backstory. No matter how beautifully Tushinde portrays her, the specificity of Dedra’s ambitions and present pressures makes us want to know more of where she’s been.
The male characters, meanwhile, are developed personalities — which likely owes much to the acting and direction — but sketched only generally in ambitions. Tel (Brandon Jones Mooney), raised by a single mother who’s rarely mentioned and never heard from in the play, wants to recruit his friend Crunch’s beatboxing skills to aid his rap ambitions. Crunch (Jordan-Michael Whidbey), the only one of the five who does not live at Riverwood, is passionate about painting and aims to study it in college — a next step clearly instilled in him as typical but strikes Tel as such an odd waste of money that it’s comical. And Lenard (Dimitri Woods), the on-call maintenance man at the building, is presented as the perennial screw-up, with a good heart and terrible decision-making. Together, they represent opposites of what might be and what could have been.
They also have much to say about inevitability. Where a much-earlier run-in with law enforcement set Lenard on his course, Tel confides in Crunch that he would not survive an encounter — so why even try. The best he can do is leave an impression on the cop if he’s ever stopped. “For the rest of his life, I hope my smile haunts him every time he goes to sleep.” That this comes natural to Tel and an aberration to Crunch might say as much about their relative circumstances as their diverging views on college.
Creech doesn’t try to cram too much into a narrative arc. Pretty much everything that happens is predictable, but that doesn’t take away (much) from the enjoyment of the play. And while some aspect of suspense is helpful to stay engaged, Creech’s style here uses a different tactic. By having the audience groan, No, don’t do that, the characters make you lean in, to care about their choices. Empathy is as powerful a tool as suspense, and a rarer one.
For all Riverwood is a specific slice of life, it’s also a play about dreams. Some of them are botched, some of them are fruitless, and some of them are necessary ideas to hold onto just to keep on moving. And some of them — well, they might just amount to something.
The thing about dreams is that any bold one will sound impossible. The younger generation coming up at the fictional Riverwood is just getting started on theirs; and while the drama occasionally looks back on the elders’ ambitions through their stories, this play won’t fast-forward to script out the younger peoples’ trajectories. (That said, I could have used more explanation at the end on Miss Penny’s trajectory.)
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For this co-production between Langston and Seattle Public Theater, Riverwood first performs at the historic Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the Central District, only through tomorrow, before moving to SPT’s stage at Green Lake. It’ll still be a good story on the intimate stage of SPT; and Lex Marcos’ appealing set design is flexible enough to work in both spaces. But in this story about dreams, the lofty ceilings at Langston create a unique space where it feels like ambitions just might soar, too.
Riverwood runs through 6/5 at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in Seattle’s Central District; it then performs 6/17-26 at Seattle Public Theater at Green Lake. Tickets are $5-$50 (sliding scale available for all), here. Accessibility notes: primary restrooms at Langston are gendered and multi-stall (with non-accessible gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available); restrooms at SPT are gender-neutral and multi-stall. Theatres and most common areas in both historic buildings are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.