'The Refuge Plays' review — an epic journey through time, space, and family
Read our four-star review of The Refuge Plays, written by Nathan Alan Davis and starring Nicole Ari Park, at Roundabout Theatre Company off Broadway.
Nathan Alan Davis’s The Refuge Plays turns the American family play on its head. The three-part epic has familiar markers of the category, like parent-child sparring matches and dredged-up family secrets, but there are also mystical elements on stage. The Roundabout Theatre Company world premiere, produced in association with the New York Theatre Workshop, features ancestral spirits and sublime performances.
The Refuge Plays begins in the deep woods of Illinois at a two-room home. The head of the household, Gail (Jessica Frances Dukes), is visited by the spirit of her deceased husband in the middle of the night. Walking Man (Jon Michael Hill), as he is known, has a message for Gail: She will die the following evening.
The family receives the news of Gail’s impending death with varying degrees of surprise and unease. Gail’s daughter, Joy (Ngozi Anyanwu), worries about ceding the role of leading the household and caring for her teenage son Ha-Ha (JJ Wynder-Wilkins) and elderly grandmother Early (Nicole Ari Parker). Gail wants Ha-Ha to find love — she wants to know the family will continue with a new generation.
“I don’t know what you so stressed about, I’m the one that’s gonna have to hold things down without you,” Joy says to her mother. “You taught me death was a comfort.”
Even as they steep in anticipatory grief, the family, befitting to their names, find joy and laughter. There is comfort, perhaps, in knowing your loved ones will visit in the night, as the ancestors of this family are wont to do.
Costume designer Emilio Sosa’s vibrantly colored costumes, with pink patchwork dusters and tangerine tie-dye leggings, exude happiness. Lighting designer Stacey Derosier dapples the too-small home with beautiful sunlight. The no-address residence in the woods is a refuge for the crowded family within.
The subsequent plays, split by two intermissions, travel back 70 years in the family’s history to reveal how great-grandmother Early came to this pocket of the woods. Director Patricia McGregor expertly leads the family lore with its sharp tonal shifts of sorrow, mystery, and humor.
In Part 2, Lance Coadie Williams as Dax, Walking Man’s uncle, dials up the funny and propels the play into comedic territory. Dax, a worldly man tied together with a silk scarf, visits his brother Crazy Eddie (Daniel J. Watts), Walking Man, and Early in the Ilinois woods before departing for a new life in Paris. In the role, Williams is heartful and delivers impeccable comic timing.
Nicole Ari Parker, known for her recent star turn in the hit TV series And Just Like That…, demonstrates incredible range as Early. Throughout the play’s seven-decade journey, Parker morphs from a cantankerous elderly woman held up by an armchair in the first play to a fiery young mother who holds her own in the last one. And she’s entirely believable at every age.
In one scene, she describes how she killed a bear with her own hands and usurped its hibernation cave to protect herself and her infant baby over the winter. Parker’s calm delivery of this horror commands the audience’s attention.
At 3.5 hours long, The Refuge Plays is a bear of a production, but it earns its stage time. My seatmates in Row H, who bowed out after the second intermission, sadly missed the heart of the play: Part 3 unveils the family origin story.
The audience members on board for all three parts were fully on board, whooping with laughter. And in the final moments, when Crazy Eddie’s truck on stage revs into gear after breaking down, the audience energetically cheers. The Refuge Plays is a joy ride worth taking.
Photo credit: Nicole Ari Parker and Daniel J. Watts in The Refuge Plays. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Originally published on