Potent family feud powers Congo Square’s ‘Brothers’
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org May 31, 2011 6:28PM
James T. Alfred (right) and Shanesia Davis in “Brothers of the Dust” by Congo Square Theatre.
‘BROTHERS OF THE DUST’
◆ Through June 26
◆ Congo Square Theatre Company at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green
◆ (312) 733-6000; congosquaretheatre.org
Updated: July 7, 2011 2:47PM
Talk about a lip-smackingly good family feud. With “Brothers of the Dust,” now in a sizzling production by Congo Square Theatre, Kansas-bred playwright Darren Canady demonstrates he can write his own African-American version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” and Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” complete with primal sibling rivalry, an obsession with money, success and questions of inheritance, and on top of everything, a whole lot of sexual rumblings that are a good deal too close for comfort. Presented as part of Congo Square’s ongoing August Wilson Initiative, the play is rooted in certain specifics of race, but its story is universal in every way.
The time is 1958. The place is an Arkansas farm where for years Roy Colton (James T. Alfred, fierce, “country” and charismatic), the oldest of three brothers, has worked tirelessly to keep the property viable while his two younger brothers, also on the deed to the land they inherited from their parents, have fled in favor of easier lives. Colton is a stubborn, driven and volatile man, and for years he has been unfaithful to his fervent wife, Mayetta (the sensational Shanesia Davis, who rips the stage apart with her delivery of a final August Wilson-worthy monologue).
Now, Standard Oil is interested in paying for surveying rights to the land, which might be the site of hugely profitable gushers. And Wilson (an ideally weasly Anthony Irons), Roy’s ruthless and desperate middle brother, whose retail business in a larger town is facing bankruptcy, has come for a visit and a signature. He is accompanied by his greedy wife, Nella (a deliciously ruthless Velma Austin-Massey).
At the same time, the brothers’ younger sibling, Ollie (Austin Talley, aptly lyrical and weak-willed), a much-heralded young poet in Chicago, also has arrived. He is on the run as a result of a sexual indiscretion with a person of powerful connections. And he is accompanied by his socially and financially well-placed “companion,” Audra (Tracy N. Bonner nails her character).
Roy has no intention of risking his land for anyone or anything. And he is further threatened by the fact that his intellectually gifted and progressive son, Jack (the likable Edgar Miguel Sanchez), has no interest in taking over the farm, and wants to go to college instead. Additional complications intensify the stakes for all involved.
If at times the plotting can feel a bit overly schematic, it hardly matters, for Canady has devised impressively distinctive and believable voices for each of his seven characters, and under Daniel Bryant’s superb direction (backed by fine design work by Andrei Onegin, Casey Diers, Samantha Jones and Rick Sims), the actors are uniformly smoking hot.
One final note: Congo Square has been doing excellent work for a dozen years now, and it deserves a far better space than the claustrophobic basement of the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts where it now performs.