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A person and person sitting on a bench

Description automatically generated Drew Lewis, Brittany K. Allen (Photo:  Jeremy Daniel)





By Deirdre Donovan


What if one's research into the family tree turned up some disturbing information that was better unknown? Well, Brittany K. Allen's new comedy, Redwood, takes a clear-eyed look at this question and, without providing any glib answers, shows you how one fictive African-American family manages to face some unwelcome information in their genetic history. Directed by Mikhaela Mahony, and in a brief run at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, this drama is both culturally enlightening and delightfully funny.


Set in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early spring of 2015, the action chiefly takes place in three spaces: Meg's apartment, Beverly Durbin's home, a dance studio, plus a brief but key scene in a local coffee shop.  


Steve Durbin (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) becomes the family's self-appointed genealogist. A persevering and diligent researcher, he soon uncovers that one of their ancestors named Alameda had two children fathered by Mr. Clark Tatum, the white owner of the plantation on which she was enslaved.

Although Steve will share this disturbing information with the whole clan, the family member who will be most impacted by it is his niece Meg (Brittany K. Allen), a middle-school English teacher, who is in love with Drew (Drew Lewis), a white physicist. Drew, who has just moved into Meg's apartment, not only will find himself pulled into the complicated conversation on the Durbins's ancestry but will also find that his own family is genetically intertwined in it.   


Drew, in fact, gets a voicemail message on his phone one day that invites him to meet with Steve Leroy Durbin. And though the voice on the voicemail undoubtedly is Meg's "Uncle Steve," Drew has no inkling of that when listening to the recording.


"Greetings and salutations, friend. My name is Steve Leroy Durbin and I found your name through a Google site called It seems we have some family in common, and I hoped to speak with you about our mutual roots. Would you be interested in meeting over Skype or in a local coffee shop to discuss our shared lineage?" 


Meg, of course, warns Drew about the potential dangers of meeting an amateur genealogist--and total stranger--at a coffee shop. Still, Drew agrees to meet Steve at the designated place.  And it is there that Drew, after responding to a few key genealogical questions from Steve, learns the dark truth about his own family. Indeed, his father, Henry Clark Tatum, is a direct descendant of Mr. Clark Tatum, the Kentucky plantation owner who enslaved Steve's first traceable ancestor, Alameda, and twice impregnated her. 

 A group of people sitting on a stage

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The cast of Redwood. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)


As Drew attempts to digest this disturbing information at the coffee shop, he gets a phone call from Meg. During the course of their phone conversation, which Steve partially overhears, it soon becomes evident to Steve that Drew is Meg's's live-in partner.


Okay, the story does get a little wild and wooly at times. But, as seamlessly directed by Mahony, one is able to go along with the playwright's more contrived plot twists, largely because her play is so grounded in American history and emotional truth. Indeed, there are nods to the Middle Passage, the Black Panthers, the Obama presidency, and more. Wisely, Allen leavens these serious subjects with humor and wit, so one never feels that Redwood is a heavy-handed civics lesson, or that the playwright is lecturing the audience on slavery or the racial divide in American history.


The acting is uniformly good. The eight-member cast is led by Allen, who plays the principal Meg. While Allen's Meg is the real star turn, the rest of the troupe definitely hold their own on stage. There's a fine performance from Portia as Meg's strong-spirited mother Beverly. Drew Lewis is well-cast as Meg's boyfriend Drew, and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson is utterly convincing as the amateur genealogist who is affectionately dubbed "Uncle Stevie."

 A person standing next to another person

Description automatically generatedPortia, Brittany K. Allen (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)


The creative team have all hands on deck. Scenic designer Ao Li follows the less-is-more philosophy with a minimalist set; properties designer Caitlyn Murphy gets a lot of mileage from some moveable low-lying cabinets that double as couches, beds, counter tops, dance platforms, and more. Choreographer Sasha Hutchings does a terrific job at creating the dance movements for Meg and Drew's "perfect" first date. Costume designer Mika Eubanks rightly outfits the company in mostly contemporary clothes and yoga gear. And, last but not least, co-lighting designers Betsy Chester and Stacey Derosier add just the right shades of light for the coming and going of the ancestral spirits.


If Redwood succeeds on many dramatic fronts, it isn't flawless. Most notably, it attempts to pack in too much action in a mere 90 minutes. If each scene had more time to breathe, Redwood could take even firmer root in the audience's imagination.


That said, Allen's Redwood is a comedy that gives one an unforgettable portrait of a black family in search of their American roots. And if there's one big take-away from this play, it's that one's past, however thorny it might be, must be embraced, if one is to move confidently into the future.



At Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52 St., Manhattan.

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Through November 12.