Dallas — Cicadas. After living underground for 17 years as larvae, Magicicadas break through to the surface to molt and mate. Their deafening mating call/singing is a familiar summer sound in Texas. Some people call them locusts though technically cicadas are not. To others the singing insects are jarflys. In The Trinity River Plays: Jarfly, Rain, and Ghost(story) Dallas native and Oak Cliff resident Regina Taylor tells the story of a family in Dallas through the perspective of a young girl. The plays are a look into how people change and yet stay the same. Dallas hosted the world premiere of this work in 2010, a collaboration between the Dallas Theater Center and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Onstage now at the South Dallas Cultural Center is the Soul Rep Theatre production of two of the three plays, Jarfly and Rain, under the direction of Anyika McMillan-Herod.
The protagonist’s story is inspired by the cicada’s cycle. The audience meets Iris Sparks in the 1970s on her 17th birthday. We see her again 17 years later in Rain. Ghost(story) offers clues toward what she might become. With only two of the three plays staged, the story is incomplete, which gives it a feeling of interruption, particularly given that lines in the second play set up the third play.
In Jarfly, Iris Spears (Kimberly Nicole) is an aspiring writer. Her mother, Rose (Monique Ridge-Williams), who does not appear until Rain, is away taking a course so that she can earn more money for the household. Iris dreams of attending SMU after graduation and pursuing her dream of being a writer. Her aunt Daisy (Rene Miche’al) has moved in to stay with her while Rose is away. Daisy promises to bake Iris’ favorite cake. Daisy’s daughter Jasmine (Takenya Banks) drops by to borrow money. Daisy asks Jasmine to help by preparing dinner for her husband and Jasmine’s stepfather (Uncle Ray Earl). It is clear that Jasmine and Daisy have a strained relationship and that Jasmine is envious of her. Iris has a crush on a boy she is tutoring, Jack (J.R. Bradford). They are cavorting around outside when Jasmine approaches and seductively leads him away from Iris. From there the day spirals out of joy into horror, becoming life-changing for Iris in ways she could never have imagined.
In Rain, Rose and Daisy are living together in Rose’s house. Iris, now a very successful writer and editor, comes home for a visit. Her visits are irregular and far apart. Somewhere over the last 17 years Iris married Frank (whom the audience never meets.) This trip home scratches at Iris’ scar tissue from the incident on her 17th birthday. Cousin Jasmine’s life has descended into addiction and deeper resentment. Iris learns that her mother is terminally ill with ovarian cancer. By the end of Rain, Iris has begun the work of healing by walking through the fire of pain kindled through her mother’s death. At the end of Rain we do not know whether she will survive her transitioning, or that of her mother’s.
On opening night, the pace was very slow. Some tightening of transitions and dialogue could reclaim some time and still take advantage of the sprawling set by Guinea Bennett-Price and Douglas Carter. Whether the cast deeply understands their characters is questionable but their commitment to fulfilling the director’s vision for the plays is clear to see. The actors are all in.
Kimberly Nicole’s Iris seems younger than 17, but otherwise Nicole is believable as an excited soon-to-be-graduate radiating innocence and anticipation. She effectively distinguishes the two Irises. Her scenes with Monique Ridge-Williams are among the more honest and engaging exchanges. The energy changes when Williams enters the room. Each character in Rain is forced to decide how they will handle the hard rain in their lives. This is where the play seethes with Iris and Jasmine’s reveals, building in intensity. That natural arc in the story has been flattened in this production.
Overall, the ensemble moves the story forward with intention. While it would have been more satisfying to see all three of the works, Jarfly and Rain work. Taylor takes us inside a family that is of Dallas, and is African-American. The two are not distinct though the world wants them to be. At this very time in America, families are simultaneously celebrating birthdays, planning for college, and hiding secrets. That these characters are African-American is important because of their normalcy, their place alongside every other family deciding what to do during the hard rains of their lives.
» Read our Artist to Artist interview, in which playwright Jonathan Norton has a conversation with Regina Taylor.