Addison — Regina Taylor’s Bread has a piercing inevitability that hurts the heart.
The story of a South Oak Cliff family with one teenage son and a baby boy on the way, WaterTower Theatre’s world premiere is a beautifully constructed and engagingly performed work, played—as one character says, referencing Stevie Wonder—“in the key of life.”
But life, as the Dallas-born actor/playwright Taylor knows well, isn’t a one-note song—and the day and night we spend with the Bakers is enough to make you laugh, cry, and connect all too well with the hopes, fears and secrets of a family who live just around the corner, and walk the right-now Dallas streets we share.
Clare Floyd DeVries’ mobile, in-the-round set design tells us that this story will be told within the tight circle of family; it also complements a visual metaphor at the end. Within its orbit, warmly lit by Adam Chamberlin, are Ruth (Stormi Demerson) and James (Djoré Nance), married for nearly two decades. Their steady, careful rise in the world has been interrupted by James losing his “good government job”—and at a time when they’ve chosen to have another child. “The world looked different last year,” they’d tell you (the play is set in early 2017).
Under Leah C. Gardiner’s thoughtful direction of a gifted cast, Demerson and Nance are achingly real. They lend Ruth and James a lovely physical warmth, though we see their points of conflict. Ruth is a lioness; protecting the people she loves is her life, even when she and others pay a price for that protection. James, a loving husband and father, is looking for some way, safe or not, to feel strong again as his careful plans crash around him. Into their circle comes local politician Al (Calvin Scott Roberts, smooth but sharp-edged) with a real estate “opportunity” for James, and older brother Jebediah (a warm but volatile Bryan Pitts). He’s returning after years away in the Army—with his own agenda and plans.
Jr. Baker (Elliot Marvin Sims), a sweet-natured, smart and hopeful young man, is marking the hours until his 18th birthday. Junior is the only character whose story takes him away from the family home and out into the city. (Brian McDonald’s video projections of old and contemporary Dallas enlarge the play’s scope and impact.) Outside or in, Junior is breathing and amplifying life—making videos, planning adventures, turning his dreams and worries into inventive raps that reveal a man-to-be we’d like to know. “To do something that’s felt/To say something that’s remembered” is his hope, though he’s torn by the need to help his family too.
Music development for the show was a collaborative effort. Beyond Taylor’s writing and Sims' lively vocals, composer Sam Lao worked on style and rhymes, with sound designer McDonald developing beats and Nance (playing James Baker) adding his own talents as a singer and musician. In the background, African-infused chants, blue songs and contemporary sounds swirl at the edges of this little family’s world, as if all the radio stations of their history are playing at once.
We are drawn by the warm curve of the Baker family’s life together as we see it first. James curls Ruth in his arms: “You are my bread—my nourishment,” he tells her. Junior unfurls along his mother’s lap, a present-day Pietà, as Ruth sings to him and the baby yet to be born. But we begin to see there is sharpness and division too: Ruth and James quarrel over Al’s proposal, and Jeb’s wealthy girlfriend (a formidable M. Denise Lee) has an outsider’s knack for seeing—and telling—what’s been concealed.
Taylor’s skillful narrative does much more than put a face on a series of social issues—it’s a compelling drama of one family carrying the burdens and joys of the past as they work for the future they want. Jebediah Baker wears the doorknob from the Trinity River bottoms house that once belonged to his and James’ father—the plot lets Taylor bring in the city’s fraught history of displacement, gentrification, and racial violence—and all the characters play the odds in a world that may be as much about “the color of green” (another kind of bread) than it is about black and white.