Under the taut direction of David Schwimmer, Kevin Douglas’s new comedy PLANTATION! succeeds in making audiences both laugh out loud and cringe. In PLANTATION!, Douglas explores one wealthy white woman’s attempt to make reparations for the benefits her family reaped from slavery. Douglas does so by posing the question: Does making amends actually work? And for whom does making amends actually benefit? The twist in PLANTATION!, however, is that these serious questions are explored almost entirely through the lens of broad, dramatic, zinger-filled satire. The all-female cast succeeds in landing each and every joke in this production, which brings the broadly comic nature of Douglas’s writing to the forefront.
In the tradition of satire, the characters in PLANTATION! are widely drawn—though some have more depth than others. Texas matriarch Lillian Wright (Janet Ulrich Brooks) resides on an opulent plantation (beautifully designed by Courtney O’Neill) with her three daughters. The youngest Kayley (Grace Smith) has taken a leave of absence for college and struggles with drug addiction. Middle daughter Kara (Linsey Page Morton) suffers from classic middle-child syndrome and is tasked with attempting to keep the family’s cotton business afloat. Eldest daughter Kimberly (Louise Lamson) is the most broadly drawn and least sympathetic of all: she is outrageously self-centered, openly racist, and seems to lack no work ethic whatsoever. When Lillian confirms that the Wright family owned slaves in the past, she plans to make amends by inviting the descendants of Sarah, a slave once owned by the Wright family, and great-great grandfather George with whom she had an affair—and whose large, uncomfortable portrait hangs in the family living room. Soon, sisters London (Lily Mojekwu),a life coach, Sydney (Ericak Ratcliff), an activist and spoken word poet, and Madison (Tamberla Perry), a social media influencer, arrive at the Wright plantation. When Lillian reveals that she wishes to bequeath the plantation to the three Wright sisters from Chicago, chaos ensues—and the play’s exploration of what it means to make amends unfolds.
From the exclamation point in the title to the characters who play off numerous societal tropes, Douglas’s play reads larger than life. PLANTATION! operates on a dual ground in which I found myself constantly laughing and enjoying myself, but also constantly being faced with uncomfortable truths. And while the script itself in places seems overly broad, Schwimmer’s direction makes every moment as tight as it can be and the ensemble succeeds in mightily in finding the truth in their satirical characters.
Ulrich Brooks is always a commanding presence onstage, and here she does not disappoint. She finds an honest representation in Lillian’s desire to do good but also hits on the superficiality implied in her desire to make amends. Ulrich Brooks’s performance truly allows us to contemplate the question of whether Lillian really desires to make things right, or if she merely wants to assuage her own guilt. Louise Lamson made me want to rightfully crawl out of my skin in her portrayal of Kimberly. She finds so much truth in Kimberly’s utter despicability and is not afraid to embrace it, which adds mightily to the dynamic of the play. Morton has a delightfully exaggerated physicality as Kara. She is convincingly harried and frenetic, and her facial expressions are elastic. As youngest sibling Kayley, Smith has a relatively more grounded presence that balances out her siblings. Yet she still manages to lean into her character’s more absurd moments. The always excellent Lily Mojekwu has a welcome calming energy as London. Ratcliff finds many hilarious moments as Sydney and also is not afraid to unleash some harsh truths on the Texas Wright family—and the audience. Perry displays wonderful comedic chops as Madison. As the housekeeper Diana Soto, Hannah Gomez brilliantly plays off the energy of the other characters in the space and has impeccable comedic timing.
PLANTATION! is a timely, truthful, and outright hilarious comedy, and I particularly appreciated seeing a show that was focused on all women. While I think there are a few beats towards the end in which Douglas could have let the satire abate to arrive at some more serious moments, the play overall has a wonderful sense of timing and narrative arc. The show also succeeds in being both immensely entertaining while also opening up some important and overarching questions about race in this country and about how we can truly overcome a racist past.
PLANTATION! runs through April 22 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 North Michigan Avenue. Visit Lookingglass.org for more information and tickets.
Photo by Liz Lauren
Read the original review on BroadwayWorld.com.