Dallas — It’s hard, watching a parent fade away. With their memories also go the rules governing their relationships. Colman Domingo bores into the family dynamics surrounding a parent with Alzheimer’s in his third play, Dot. The core question his characters are each asking themselves is what is next for me? This Soul Rep Theatre Co. production, directed by Anyika McMillan-Herod, is one of its strongest, a doubling-down of their commitment to staging the stories of the black community as reflected through its playwrights.
Domingo is perhaps better known to general audiences through his acting career which includes films such as Lincoln, Selma and The Butler, and the TV series Euphoria and Fear the Walking Dead. He was actually filming Selma when he started writing Dot. Through his writing he seeks to tear down old stereotypes of black families as down-trodden and beholden. In Dot we enter the home of a normal contemporary black family which finds itself grappling with a terminal illness that is stealing their remaining parent in plain sight.
Domingo has written a rich ensemble piece which has almost as many comedic moments as dramatic. McMillan-Herod has pulled together a group of actors who are ably bringing strong work to this play. There are so many places in the script where this story can go off the rails, but it never does. Part of that is due to the actors. The other part is a credit to the direction.
It is a couple of days before Christmas and the family matriarch, Dotty (Catherine Whiteman) is determined to make this Christmas special. We enter as she is arguing with her attorney daughter and primary guardian Shelly (Renee Miche’al). Jackie (Brandy McClendon Kae), a neighborhood girl who was involved with Donnie during high school has popped in unexpectedly from New York. Shelly is irritable and frustrated from being the only child present for her mother, living inside the tornado that is now Dotty’s world.
The next day we meet Donnie (Yusef Miller) and his husband Adam (Sergio Antonio Garcia) who arrived overnight. Dotty’s beloved caretaker Fidel (Satchel Victory) is busily decorating. It’s anybody’s guess when their sister Averie (Jaquai Wade Pearson) will show up. At the end of her rope, Shelly has decided the time has come to demand a deeper engagement and load-sharing from her brother and Averie who is currently living in Shelly’s basement. By the end of the first act, Averie finally sashays in, completing the family holiday tableau.
For anyone familiar with the signs, Whiteman’s portrayal of Dotty will resonate as the character struggles to find her way while at the same time resisting being bossed around by her first-borne child. Whiteman presents the warm strength expected from a mother at Christmastime tied up with a profanity studded vinegary ribbon. In her hands, Dotty is poignant without being pitiable.
The role of Shelly is layered because as the oldest child, she is the most stable, and a single parent in addition to being immediately responsible for Dotty. Through the cognitive absence of her mother, Shelley has by default become the family’s reluctant anchor. Miche’al wears this character well, bringing forth the full weight and complexity of all of that stress for the audience.
Miller and Garcia are really good together, gliding through their scenes like a beautiful dance. Miller’s onstage electricity is balanced by Garcia’s graceful focus. Their “Donnie’s awakening scene” was for this reviewer the most beautiful, not because of the words but because of their characterizations.
Brandy Kae is delightful as Jackie, nuancing that character with authenticity and vulnerability. The script says Averie bursts onto the stage. It’s hard to imagine Wade coming onstage any other way. She has a strong presence which is exactly what her character demands. Victory plays a smaller part, but that role is important to Dotty in the story. By the end of the play Victory has secured a space of strength for his character.
A small observation … It cannot be overstated how important technical elements are in telling a story. The choices made are a reflection of how well the design team knows the characters’ culturally. Guinea Bennett-Price’s set design feels familiar even down to the piano behind the sofa. Looking at that configuration through one lens it might seem problematic because it places Donnie at the piano with his back to the audience during an important scene with Adam.
On the other hand, many an older black family home has that kind of arrangement, hearkening back to a time when a piano was more a piece of furniture than a musical instrument. Add to the mix that no one else played the piano after Donnie left home, placing it behind the sofa is the type of spatially efficient decision a family might make. Good actors make scenes work, as do Miller and Garcia here.
Dot is an unexpected holiday play choice for a general audience conditioned to stage and film fare featuring elves and Santas and adopted puppies under decorated trees. A play about Alzheimer’s? But holidays exist to celebrate relationships, thereby creating new memories however fleeting. We look at the Shealy family and see love. Also fear and dread, but overwhelmingly love.