This week, Cygnet Theater opens its production of Dominique Morisseau’s 2019 play, “Mud Row.”
Morisseau, a 2018 MacArthur Fellow, was part of the famed Lark Play Development Center in New York City. His intimate and poetic songwriting – including the Tony-nominated “Skeleton Crew”
“Detroit ’67” and “Paradise Blue,” which make up his “Detroit Projects” trilogy, explore how people and their communities deal with social upheaval and change.
“Mud Row” tells the story of two generations of sisters from the same family, one in the 1960s and the other in the present day, both living in the same house in a neighborhood in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg said the play was commissioned by Pennsylvania-based theater company People’s Light as part of a project to develop plays about local neighborhoods.
Sonnenberg said the backdrop of the world outside the house in Mud Row is like an anchor for how the script moves seamlessly through time.
“In both periods there are – in particular – social changes. So they both take place in times of change – the two sections – the past and the present,” she said.
In the 1960s, sisters Elsie (Andréa Agosto) and Frances (Joy Yvonne Jones) are divided over whether to demonstrate for civil rights. These days, gentrification surrounds the house where sisters Regine (Marti Gobel) and Toshi (Rachel Cognata) live.
“It’s really one of the things I like about the play, because it’s not a problem play. It’s an intimate family play that takes place in a large context. It’s my kind of favorite theater,” Sonnenberg said. “In this particular case, the general backdrop is social change in America, the story of this particular Mud Row neighborhood.”
Sonnenberg said one of the things the play does well is explore how the sisters are both devoted to each other, but also hurt or disappoint each other.
“One of the things that comes back to me a lot with the piece is this idea of how difficult it is to forgive those closest to you and the mind-blowing journey of forgiveness,” Sonnenberg said.
Actress Marti Gobel, who plays current sister Regine, said the same way they fight and love each other, women are bonded even across generations.
“These women are all about seeking to feel a palpable change not just in how they feel in their home, which they all shared, but in how they feel in the world – and the sense of emotional dependence towards each other, even when there are those who are not present,” Gobel said.
In one scene, Regine and her partner, Davin (played by Rondrell McCormick) are in the Mud Row house discussing whether to tear the house down and start over. Régine feels distraught and disconnected from the history of the house, which she inherited from her grandmother.
“[Regine] is dealing with an incredibly unhappy childhood and the presentation of the love she received from her grandmother, which didn’t show up as love. He presented himself as harshness. So to walk into this house that she hasn’t visited in five years is upsetting for her,” Gobel said.
Set in the East End neighborhood of West Chester, Pennsylvania, it’s a story that’s rooted in place, but still has a universality and relatability that transcends the details. Mud Row could be countless other neighborhoods in many cities struggling with gentrification and history.
Gobel said she was struck by how the piece addresses how gentrified communities are losing the “porch culture” that is universally important in the African-American community.
“One thing that we definitely lose with gentrification and as we move into modern times is the notion of sitting on the porch and having a relationship with your neighbors as they become extended family or a community,” Gobel said.
Cygnet’s production of “Mud Row” is one of many plays in recent months directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg featuring not just work by a black playwright, but a mostly black cast: the new “1222 Ocean Front at the New Village Arts; “The Garden” at La Jolla Playhouse and “Trouble in Mind” at The Old Globe.
“It definitely looks like a change. But not only that,” Sonnenberg said. “The kind of acknowledgment that there is more than one black story.”
As an actor, Gobel’s experience offers another perspective.
“In 20 years of work — as an artist who works internationally — this is literally the second play in 20 years that I’ve starred in with an all-black cast and a black director. It doesn’t happen that often,” Gobel said. “And I would love to see that happen more, so the specificity of this production is unfortunately applicable to American theater and we need to see more of that.”
Wednesday, May 18, 2022 at 7:30 PM
Until June 19, 2022
Old Town Theater (Cygnet Theatre)
“Mud Row” is a play by Dominique MorisseauDirected by Delicia Turner SonnenbergAbout the play:Two generations of sisters navigate class, race, love and family in “Mud Row”, an area located in the East End of West Chester, in Pennsylvania. Elsie hopes to advance in the world by marrying “the talented tenth”, while her sister Frances joins the fight for civil rights. Decades later, estranged sisters Regine and Toshi are forced to consider their and each other’s common heritage, when Regine inherits Grandma Elsie’s house. Tony Award nominee Dominique Morisseau deftly swings between past and present to paint a vivid portrait of the family’s legacy. June 19, 2022 (cheap previews: May 18 – May 20, 2022) Find more production-related events here. 15Pre-show stage talks: June 1, June 15Post-show stage talk: June 8Related links: Cygnet Theater on InstagramCygnet Theater on Facebook