Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Jesus J. Montero.
Thirst, now playing at Strawdog Theatre, lives at the intersection of speculative fiction, racism, conservation, and relationship drama. It opens with something that feels like WWIII. Bombs fall, factions arise, people die, racism abounds, and civilized democratic society crashes to the floor, replaced by petty dictatorships. But this war is not due to land acquisition or political desire; it is about the simple fact that natural resources are not infinite and those who control them have immense power over those who don’t. This play, however, is not about the war; its focus is on the ways in which war and major shortages affect people and relationships.
Its main setting is a small clearing in a forest in which Samira (Tracie Taylor) has made a home with her lover Greta (Laura Resinger) and their foundling son Kalil (Saniyah As-Salaam). Samira’s ex-husband Terrance (Gregory J. Fields), aided by his brother Bankhead (Johnard Washington) and an over-enthusiastic lead soldier named Coolie (Tamarus Harvell), have won the local battle over water rights in the county from the white people after a protracted fight, taking control of a well and a bottling plant and handing out gallon jugs daily to each household. On this day, Terrance—now the absolute ruler of this massively segregated town—has declared the war over, calling it Peace Day and setting up a parade and celebration.
Not everyone is feeling the peace as well as others, though. Kalil tells his moms that the men at the well refused him a new jug of water, and they instantly understand why: Terrance is desperate to get Samira to see him and thinks that withholding water will force her to come to town. But Samira refuses to do so, leaving the task to Greta, whose whiteness may be tolerated by the Black townsfolk when they need her to make repairs on their houses, but that doesn’t necessarily extend to wandering into a heavily armed headquarters to make demands of a king.
The small makeshift family in the woods and its daily struggles are beautifully set up in an opening scene once Kalil finishes telling us about recent history. (As-Salaam is a wonderful narrator for this, letting us feel what her character feels as if it is happening now.) Director Andrea J. Dymond’s staging and character dynamics create the impression of three people who have managed to find joy amidst all of this chaos. Taylor and Resinger show us a loving, intimate couple, and both moms have established strong relationships with the precociously world-wise Kalil, who in their care has finally been allowed to be a child after enduring the hell of war and the pain of watching both of his real birth parents die.
Such simple pleasures, however, are difficult to maintain when you are living in the eye of a hurricane. Terrance’s victory in the war has afforded him the time to focus once more on the woman who left him just as it was getting underway, and his jealousy and pain over Samira both leaving him and establishing a relationship with a white woman leap to the forefront of his thoughts. (For the record, Greta’s race seems more of an issue than her sex, though the hot-tempered Coolie is viscerally and verbally homophobic.) As the women correctly surmised, his refusal to give them water is indeed intended to get Samira to come to him, as he is convinced that she will come back if she just remembers that she loves him.
Dymond establishes the acerbic, violent characteristics of Terrance and his cohorts as easily as the harmonious lifestyle of Samira, Greta, and Kalil. In one scene set in Terrance’s office, it becomes clear that he will not relent until Samira is “home.” Bankhead is the voice of reason in Terrance’s camp, cautioning him that Samira has a life that doesn’t include him and urging him to move on. Interestingly, Cooley (who has his own jealousy that he is not as important to Terrance as his brother) seems to agree on that point, though his solution would be to walk into the woods and kill them all. The three men pace around each other, passion flares, and guns are flashed. It’s a testosterone-laden scene that contrasts beautifully with the gentility of the forest home, where love is dominant and anger only emerges when the subject is Terrance.
The acting throughout is superb. In addition to Al-Salaam’s ingratiating portrayal of Kalil, each of the other actors finds multiple levels in their roles. Especially difficult are the characters of Terrance and Samira, and Fields and Taylor rise to the task. Fields gives us a “king” who has never really lost the tenderness of his youth but needs to project power in order to lead. (Granted, his dislike for Greta eases some of his duality.) This man, the ostensible antagonist of the piece, is not at all a one-dimensional warlord. He holds onto his need for Samira as he holds onto a box of mementos of their life together, unwilling to admit his failures. Taylor, for her part, has three different relationships to parse: her maternal role with Kalil blends well with the role of lover with Greta, but Samira’s own reluctance to face her ex-husband and her past have bottled up a lot of who she is. Facing Terrance, she faces herself: it is hard for each of them.
As for the others, Washington’s calm performance makes Bankhead the perfect mediator both in the office and in the woods. His demeanor is friendly and he exudes sincerity, but he is willing to speak the truth openly even if it hurts. Harvell uses the opposite characteristic, tension, to create the tightly-wound Cooley, who couldn’t possibly be more different from Bankhead. And Resinger’s Greta is a composite of all of them. She suffers from as much insecurity as we see in Samira’s ex, spawned by the knowledge that there are secrets that her partner won’t tell her; she can be as loving and tender as Samira and they make a wonderful couple, but she is as easily roused to anger like Cooley as she is thoughtful like Bankhead.
This play is a fascinating hybrid: violence and racial divisions are always at its forefront, but its soul lies in love and family relationships. Though the literal aspect of the title and the water shortage is a bit of a MacGuffin—no one here is even close to dying of thirst—these characters all thirst for the kind of bonds that war has torn asunder, the kind that are hard to make and harder to preserve. It is, as Strawdog Artistic Director Leda Hoffmann says, “both intimate and epic” in its scope, and this production makes both aspects work beautifully. It is a very personal examination of the costs of war and hatred, and it will stay with you.
Thirst is now playing at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice, Chicago, IL, until Feb 15. The show runs approximately 95 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.