Dispatch: Midwest Premiere of Morisseau Play Highlights Milwaukee Black Theatre Festival

At a time when many regional theater companies are pulling back on their operations due to funding and other issues, Milwaukee’s Black Theatre Festival has expanded from one week to three. The Milwaukee Black Theatre Festival, presented by Black Arts Milwaukee, runs through August 27.

This is the third year of the festival, which came into existence following the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement. The first festival was launched in cooperation with Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in 2020. Milwaukee has an abundance of talented Black performers, directors and technical staff who blended their skills to create a space for “unheard voices” in their local community. Even the first festival celebrated the community’s wealth of talent, both onstage and off.

This year’s event consists of two full-length productions (Dominique Morisseau’s Mud Row—reviewed below, and Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting). The festival schedule also includes lectures, audition workshops, poetry sets, an acting masterclass and a “Youth and Family Night” to “celebrate the vitality of youth and family. All of the events are free, with the exception of the two plays.

Black Arts MKE is a Black-led performing arts organization “committed to increasing the availability and quality of African American arts and culture." Major supporters for the festival include local corporations, the National Endowment for the Arts and Milwaukee’s United Performing Arts Fund.

A young Elsie (Ashley S. Jordan) contemplates her future in Mud Row. Photo courtesy of Black Arts MKE.

Black Arts MKE Plays Vital Role in Coordinating Festival

Festival events are being staged around town, including at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum (on King Drive), a performing studio at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (in downtown Milwaukee), and a theater at Marquette University (at the edge of downtown). Both of the festival’s plays are being produced at Marquette University, and this effort represents a new collaboration with the university’s VIP Theatre Program.

A recent visit to the production of Mud Row was also an invitation to watch a great deal of local talent both onstage and off. Several of the actors are based in Milwaukee, with one being a recent Marquette University graduate. The production’s director, Marti Gobel, a former Wisconsin resident who has been seen onstage in numerous productions around town, has broadened her experience to directing plays as well.

Review: Blacks Find Few Places to Build, So Wind Up in Mud Row

Mud Row is set in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Unlike the upscale communities such as California’s Beverly Hills, New York’s the Hamptons or Seattle’s Queen Anne District, one can guess that a place named Mud Row was hardly a gentrified area. It was filled with hard-working, blue-collar Black folks who scrimped and saved to purchase land and build a house.

Such is the case with a family inhabited by two generations of a single family. The home is occupied by two sisterly “ghosts” who grew up in the house during the late 1950s, and also the modern-day sisters who now must decide the future of their family legacy.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau leads her journey with skill and grace. Some of her observations are light-hearted, while others delve into the roots of identity, intertwined with issues of race, class, love and loss.

Morisseau, who was born in Detroit, is one of our most influential contemporary playwrights. Another of her plays, Skeleton Crew, played on Broadway in 2016 and at Northlight Theatre in 2018.. She also wrote the book for Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations (for which she was nominated for a Tony Award in 2019). She is also the recipient of the MacArthur (“genius”) Fellowship.

So one expects quite a lot from Mud Row, and the Milwaukee cast delivers. First up is the pair of older sisters, Elsie (Ashley S. Jordan) and Frances (Martilia Marechal). Aided by their period-appropriate costumes (beautifully rendered by Trinae Williams-Henning), the two characters spar over the very different paths they have chosen in life. While Elsie (unfortunately) puts her faith in a white boy’s middle-class family, hoping to improve her social rank, Frances rejects any notions of racial peace. She is taunted (and ultimately, injured) by white police during civil rights protest rallies.

Not long afterward, the audience is introduced to another generation of sisters who also have made very different life choices. Toshi (Malaina Moore) has been squatting (undetected) in her grandmother’s house for three months along with her boyfriend, Tyriek (Marques Causey). Both are trying to get away from their past addictions and move forward in their lives. Without the abandoned house to protect them, the couple admits they’d likely be out on the street.

Toshi (Malaina Moore) and Tyriek (Marques Causey) hatch a plot to take control of her grandmother's house. Photo courtesy of Black Arts MKE.

Soon, the older sister arrives. Regine (Lillian Brown) represents the “best of all worlds” because she is college-educated and is married to Davin (Ibraheem Farmer). For some reason, she has inherited the house through her grandmother’s will.

Sisters Squabble Over Future of ‘Granny’s House’

Both sisters share a sense of loss over their missing family members. Toshi is especially shattered to discover that her poor decisions as a young girl have consequences that resonate to the present. Toshi makes a desperate grab to claim “squatter’s rights” in terms of the home’s ownership, but it proves to be a weak argument. The fact that a house plays such an important role in the family’s generational wealth (now that developers are willing to pay big bucks for the property) is particularly relevant in Milwaukee. The city’s historic redlining and unfair lending practices, while now illegal, still reverberate in Milwaukee’s various housing markets.  

Regine (Lillian Brown) and Davin (Ibraheem Farmer). Photo courtesy of Black Arts MKE.

Back at “granny’s house,” both contemporary sisters reflect on what they learned while growing up in the house, and how the strength of the women who came before them is imprinted on their identities.

Under Gobel’s direction, these scenes play out naturally. A scattering of humor permeates the otherwise tense drama of women who grew up poor and ultimately overcame their modest beginnings.

The production’s detailed set (by Lillian Gonzales) tells volumes about what has happened inside over time. Lighting (by Maaz Ahmed) and sound direction (by Kemet Gobel) help to set the stage in its appropriate period. Some intriguing projections (by Nathan Berry) are sometimes used to create images of this family over time.

Mud Row is a powerful, potent inspiration for audiences that goes far beyond the recognition people may find by seeing a half-dozen Black faces onstage. It is an extremely well-crafted tale that audiences of any color should be lining up to see.

Mud Row continues through August 27 at the VIP Theatre at Marquette University, located at 1304 W. Clybourn St., Milwaukee. The final show is a 2pm matinee. The production runs a bit more than two hours, and there is a brief intermission. For tickets at $20, visit www.blackartsmke.org.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.