As anyone who’s attempted to shake themselves loose from a diseased family tree can tell you, it’s not the branches that eternally grasp and devour the soul; it’s the root that can never be excised.
Magnolia runs through Sunday, April 19 at the Goodman’s Albert Theatre.
Southern blacks have survived by a stated code that has kept most of them mostly safe for generations: “Up North, get as big as you want, but don’t get too close; down South, get as close as you want, just don’t get too big.” It was long a gentleman’s agreement that racial segregation was preached, but never successfully practiced. The “white Robinsons” sharing direct ancestry with the “black Robinsons” “across the way”, “on the other side of the (railroad) tracks”, “creek”, highway”, or sometimes all under one roof. The “black Robinsons” bound into indentured conservatorship to their white relations, often attached by emotional and financial chains more galvanized than the iron chains that enslaved the black relations decades before.
“I’ve takin’ care of the care of the Forest family for the hundred years I’ been here,” announces the elderly servant Samuel in playwright Regina Taylor’s masterful pen stroke Magnolia. Director Anna D. Shapiro delivers a wistful elegance and front row seating of our history, a past that only recent seismic events in our nation’s only politic give opportunity to look at race in clearer context of historical events, the lurid discussions of past racial transgressions shorn away with new introspection.
As anyone who’s attempted to shake themselves loose from the diseased family tree can tell you, it’s not the branches that eternally grasp and devour the soul, it’s the root that can never be excised. To gaze into a mirror and see generations upon generations looking back at us; our wallpaper stained in silhouette of family secrets. Lies intertwined with shame; past colliding with destiny; the one meshed into the collective.
Regina Taylor successfully plays a time traveling Peeping Tom, creating a wormhole into the past. In doing so, she provides us with an intimate portrayal of the America made “post-racial” not by desperate electorate or Sunday morning political pundits, but by the landing of that first ship brimming with African slaves.
What happens when the sharecropper becomes the landlord -- patiently waiting for his prey to become so emotionally handicapped and financially desperate that the prey must set aside centuries of “that’s just how it is”, and swallow the bitterness and betrayal of “that’s just how it’s gon’ be from now on”? Thomas (John Earl Jelks) and Lily (Annette O’Toole) were both born on Magnolia, the Atlanta plantation that they now scrap over. Lily’s family owned Thomas’, her great-grandfather “having his way” with Thomas’ great-grandmother, making Lily and Thomas bound by blood to the last place in the world that they would want to see again. After the death of his father, Thomas cannot bare to set foot on the Magnolia “estate” until a business opportunity arrives in the form of a civil rights protest.
In 1963, a barricade is erected by the city to separate the colored side of town from the white side. The barricade keeps the colored homebuyers out, but also kills off business on the white side of town, the Atlanta citizenry unwilling to cross the picket lines to have a meal at the white restaurant establishment, Kerry’s. So desperate have the protests become and the finances in dire straits, Kerry’s owner, William (John Hines is refreshingly relaxed as an all-talk-and-shuck Southern patriot), starts serving the Negro citizens, an abomination that makes his blood boil, even with his colored staff doing the cooking and table-waiting. But he’s a man in desperate times, and the barricade will determine the adaptability and survival of everyone in the coming new Atlanta.
Thomas is kindred spirit with William, wanting little to do with integration, his wealth coming from the fruits of the full tree of segregation, money made from providing goods and services to the coloreds that white ruling class refused to serve. Racial integration is a known detriment to his business plan, but Thomas knows that like white Atlanta and Magnolia’s occupants, he too will run when faced with integration’s reality. He eagerly awaits Lily’s return from Europe, hoping to find her a more willing negotiator than brother Beau (John Judd), who believes that Magnolia should stay in the family and that their colored “kin” be the only integration Magnolia should stay familiar with -- as employees, of course. Beau knows Thomas wants to raze the estate and develop single-family homes.
Sister Lily -- now out of male sponsors and money -- returns to Magnolia with her two daughters in tow: Anna (Caitlin Collins), wide-eyed and ready to take the sexual plunge with confused-on-all-personal-accounts beatnik Paul (Cliff Chamberlain), and the adopted Ariel (Carrie Coon) who stands sentry over Anna, assuming guardianship to assure her link in the family armor. Lily finds her home and hearth different than when she left it. Magnolia is in dereliction: The servants have quit, the family no longer able to make payroll, and their societal favor has all but disappeared.
After friendly drinking and reacquainting at Kerry’s, Lily and Beau’s bemused reminiscing quickly distills to snake venom. The siblings turn on one another with Rottweiler temperament, crashing into one another’s psyche like runaway freight trains. With surgical precision they verbally slice one another down for sins past and life failings. Annette O’Toole and John Judd deliver a bloodless theatrical coup, sucking the air from auditorium. A perfect delivery, but exhausting and painful to watch, the characters purposely try to destroy one another, all in the name of holding on to forty-two acres of soul-destroying legacy and perpetual reminder of personal misery.
“Why bother to save the family homestead” becomes mute when the family matriarch passes away. Thomas is aware of the chasm between Lily and Beau, and upon learning of the matriarch’s passing he pounces on the bones of Magnolia, going to Lily with his nice “deal” after Beau refuses to voluntarily sign over his family home, knowing that a colored man will need a white proxy if he wants to push the issue of ownership. Lily is open to Thomas, believing that he will “take care of family”, after all, they’re all “children of the (estate).” But as worldly as Lily believes herself to be, she cannot fathom why Thomas would keep Magnolia in its current incarnation, with her family the prime residents, still “taken care of” by colored “family.” Lily uncomfortably shrugs away Thomas’s traumatic memories -- “people were forced to do things” -- as Thomas reminds her of his grandmother’s rape at the hands of her great-grandfather.
As the evidence piles up that maintaining the Forest family homestead and legacy are not Thomas’ priority, Lily suits up, ready for battle, throwing anything she can to slow the progression of destiny, even placing daughter Ariel on the bartering table. But Thomas, like all that have had to out-maneuver around the barricades placed before them to achieve success, finds a way to come back to Magnolia, if only for a moment.
At the end of the day, each member of the Forest family, and their colored relations, must accept progress -- better or worse. Magnolia's message is clear: We cannot progress, proceed, or push through until we accept the fact that even in the progression of equality, we must sacrifice our comforts and familiarities, no matter how traumatic they may be.