The Dragonfly Multicutural Arts Center honored Black History Month this February 17th. The company did so through a show significant for both its historical and its theatrical value. Dragonfly performed a reading of the first play written by an African American to be produced in the United States. The event took place via Zoom and Facebook.
Dragonfly Executive Director Catherine LaMoreaux’s opening remarks provided viewers with the show’s context. Angelina Weld Grimké wrote Rachel in 1916. A desire to educate her audience about racial conditions in the United States inspired the work. The playwright submitted it to the Drama Committee of the NAACP. It became the first American theatrical production to feature all African American cast members.
Rachel’s tone could be compared to that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One could describe it as a melodrama, but the underlying premise gave the work a realistic edge.
Rachel brought viewers into the Loving household. They seemed a typical early twentieth century American family. Mrs. Loving (played by M. Drue Williams) worked odd jobs as a seamstress. Her son Tom (Nathaniel Tomb) played quarterback on the school football team. Her teenaged daughter Rachel (Amanda S. Padilla) loved children.
During their evening together, Mrs. Loving became melancholic. The children inquired why. Her response would change their lives. She revealed that on the same night ten years prior: “Christian people in a Christian land” lynched both their father and half-brother.
Tom displayed incipient signs of bitterness. Rachel began doubting her religious faith. She even questioned her desire to raise children. African American children grew up “just for that?” She asked her mother.
Shortly after, a seven-year-old child, Jimmy (John Randall) moved in with the Lovings. Rachel became his surrogate mother. She also gained the affections of family friend, John Strong (Abraham Ntonya). Both did little to ameliorate Rachel’s increasing disillusionment with the society around her.
Amanda S. Padilla delivered a riveting performance as Rachel. With buoyancy and enthusiasm, Ms. Padilla showed the character’s positivity along with her passion in caring for young children. As the show progressed, she displayed the devastating impact of living in a racist society.
One of the show’s most powerful scenes featured Jimmy and Rachel. Mr. Randall described a group of kids throwing rocks at him while shouting a racial epithet. He asked Rachel why they did. Ms. Padilla attempted to explain. Her difficulty showed that the incident affected her more than him.
Ms. Padilla delivered a passionate monolog during the third act. With lachrymose eyes she related how the trauma of racism had affected her soul. “We are all cursed by the white man’s prejudice,” she said. “In a year or two Jimmy will be made old by suffering.”
Nathaniel Tomb also showed the effect of bigotry on his character. Despite graduating from college as an electrical engineer, no one would hire him. Mr. Tomb’s facial expressions and vocal inflections showed Tom’s increasing resentment. When Mrs. Loving told him not to lose his faith in God, he replied that he’d “try” to believe again.
Abraham Ntonya played the pragmatic John Strong. When asked how he was doing, Mr. Ntonya replied “I’m always well.” A college graduate, his race precluded him from gaining suitable employment. The lack of options forced him to become a waiter. Mr. Ntonya captured John’s practicality. He enthusiastically described working into the position of head waiter. He expatiated on the perquisites of his job. For one, his former college classmates tipped him well. “They see it as philanthropy,” he said. When Rachel questioned him on the merits of his career, he dispassionately stated, “I tried your way. Mine is the only sane one.”
M. Drue Williams portrayed the family’s matriarch. Ms. Williams showed her character’s steady resolve while coping with loss and suffering. Her weary description of feeling older than her 60 years stirred empathy. As did her efforts to keep her children rooted in their faith while living in a “white Christian country that sets its curse upon motherhood.” In a moving scene she commented on Jimmy’s resemblance to her departed son, George. “If God hadn’t relented a little in giving me back my boy.”
Anna Paone read the stage directions. Catherine LaMoreaux served as the show’s technical director. Nathaniel Tomb’s cat made an uncredited cameo.
Grimké’s portrayal of Rachel’s development served as a unique type of bildungsroman. It provided the audience with an understanding of a young woman’s coming of age not under tragic circumstances, but under normal circumstances that happened to be tragic for her because of her race. Ford Madox Ford opened his 1915 novel The Good Soldier with the words: This is the saddest story I ever heard. One wonders if he still would have written that had he seen Rachel first.
A replay of Rachel is available on the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center’s Facebook page.
Next week Dragonfly will continue commemorating Black History Month. On Wednesday February 24, the company will present Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. It will feature Sheleah Harris and Arthur Gregory Pugh. The performance will be broadcast via Zoom. Those interested in watching must preregister at DragonflyArtsNJ@gmail.com.