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