Theater review: ‘Malverse’ explores race relations at The Magnetic Theatre

TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION: "Malverse is an urban legend/ghost story, and there’s a fair amount of twisted humor in it," says playwright John Crutchfield. "But, basically, it’s a straight-up social drama dealing with the theme of race relations in the context of urban gentrification." Pictured, clockwise from top, are Darren Marshall, Andrew Gall, Laura Tratnik, Valeria Watson and Gary Gaines.
TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION: "Malverse is an urban legend/ghost story, and there’s a fair amount of twisted humor in it," says playwright John Crutchfield. "But, basically, it’s a straight-up social drama dealing with the theme of race relations in the context of urban gentrification." Pictured, clockwise from top, are Darren Marshall, Andrew Gall, Laura Tratnik, Valeria Watson and Gary Gaines. Photo by Rodney Smith/Tempus Fugit Design

By chance, I listened to the audiobook of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun a few weeks ago — the story of a black family living several generations together in a cramped Chicago apartment, whose members each seek to improve their situation. It centers on the purchase of a house in an all-white suburb. John Crutchfield’s latest play, Malverse, nods to Hansberry’s groundbreaking work (and to its spinoff, Bruce Norris‘ 2010 Clybourne Park).

The show, onstage at The Magnetic Theatre through Saturday, June 3, deals with a white couple who’ve settled in a predominantly black neighborhood in hopes that, as the area gentrifies, their investment will pay off handsomely. But in this play, systemic racism plays out not through dreams deferred as much as through nightmares, real and imagined.

Jennifer (played by Laura Tratnik) is hugely pregnant, and her distracted husband Tom (Andrew Gall) is more concerned with uplifting their fixer-upper. The house sat empty for more than a decade, as Jennifer learns from her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Wilkins (Valeria Watson), who, after some pressing, shares the tale of a murder that happened in the basement.

Watson’s Mrs. Wilkins is at once bustling with neighborly duty and cautiously distant. It’s she who points out not everyone in the neighborhood likes white people. Jennifer — weary and wry — is less concerned with race relations than a strange sound she hears at night. She fears the house is haunted. Meanwhile, handyman Dave (Darren Marshall) a jovial Trump supporter with good intentions and some outmoded ways of thinking, encourages Tom to keep a gun and distrust his neighbors. “I like black people. Black people are fine. I just prefer not to live next to them,” Dave says.

There is, perhaps, an overly academic cast to the play’s two black characters — Mrs. Wilkins and “The Stranger” (played with raw deliberation by Gary Gaines), whose identity is revealed in a startling moment. A few of their lines seem unlikely for people whose lives have been underscored by misfortune and lack of opportunity. Still, it’s heartening to see rich characters for black actors on an Asheville stage, and both Watson and Gaines bring depth to the production.

Crutchfield, known for poetic and transformative plays like Ruth and The Song of Robert, approaches themes of garden-variety white supremacy and 21st-century segregation though the words and actions of ordinary characters whom we can all recognize among our own acquaintances. These are decent people who only want what’s best for their families. They’re not out to perpetuate a system of abuse, but unquestioned beliefs and unchecked paranoias quickly wreak havoc.

The genius of Malverse is how it weaves between a fear of ghosts (that most adults would eschew, even though we’ve all felt the hair rise on their backs of our necks) and a fear of people we perceive as different from us — artfully illustrating the parallels of those two kinds of self-deception. Crutchfield also designed the show’s set — a kitchen in the chaotic disarray of a rehab and a couple of creepy doors through which unsettling noises emerge. Malverse is directed by Steven Samuels with eerily sparse lighting and sound by Jason Williams and Mary Zogras, respectively.

The ending, too, is smart. With considerable restraint, it trades big drama for the opportunity to start a conversation as the play continues in the minds of the viewers long after the house lights go up. In a time when issues of race and connectivity are at the forefront of our collective American consciousness, Crutchfield presents a thoughtful exploration of those themes.

WHAT: Malverse by John Crutchfield
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St., themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, June 3. Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. $16

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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7 thoughts on “Theater review: ‘Malverse’ explores race relations at The Magnetic Theatre

  1. Big Al

    This play is not just for entertainment, it has something to say. Too often, such plays get a little preachy and suck all of the humor and whimsy out of a story. They can be too ham-fisted and pretentious.

    BUT “Malverse” makes it’s point with just the right balance of humor and gravity. Its’ characters are REAL and even the most flawed display enough humanity to avoid becoming caricatures. The ending leaves open the question of whether any of us will be guided by fear or by the better angels of our nature.

    If you have never attended a play at the Magnetic Theatre, THIS is the one to start with. It is the most satisfying play I have seen yet since the 375 Depot Street location opened.

      • Big Al

        From that review:

        ” …is the playwright following the Chekhov rule that a weapon displayed in the first act must go off by the end of the play? ”

        I took the fact that the firearm reappeared but was NOT fired (I had fully expected it to be) at the ending of the last scene to be a sign of hope.

        • Theatre Lover

          Interesting take on the ending. The character has drawn his weapon and appears to be heading in the direction of the offending character. Why is he going after him with a drawn weapon? I assume we’re meant to be left guessing.

          • Big Al

            The “why” is not in question, the character had already stated his mistrust of the black community the house occupies.

            The real question is what will this distrustful armed white man do when he encounters a strange black man in the basement? Had the play ended with a gunshot (as I expected) it would have reinforced the common view that fear and racism always overrides justice and mercy.

            The fact that no shot rang out leaves me to believe that the playwright concluded there is equal measure of hope and hopelessness in mankind.

            Or maybe I am just a clueless softie who has been seduced by the cesspool of sin.

  2. Theatre Lover

    It would be fun to know how others interpreted the ending. Is he going to fire the gun? My sense was that he was. Yours is that he might have a change of heart when actually confronted with this helpless human being . . .?

    Anyone else?

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