Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
Brittany K. Allen's thought-provoking Redwood is the first play programmed by its new co-artistic directors
We all have that one relative who fell down the Ancestry.com rabbit hole.
"Dear Clan," emails Stevie (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) to his extended family at the opening of Redwood, Brittany K. Allen's sly comedy currently running at Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST). "I was in my hip-hop dance class when the idea came to me."
Struck by the beauty of the Black bodies around him and the history pulsing through their movements and the music, Stevie suddenly feels a powerful curiosity about the long, fraught lineage of African Americans to which he belongs. So, he tells his family to get swabbing. Allen's witty new work explores the impact of Stevie's inquisitiveness on his niece Meg (played by the playwright) and her white boyfriend Drew (Drew Lewis) after an unexpected connection is uncovered between the pair.
Redwood is the latest work to come out of EST's Obie-winning playwriting collective Youngblood, which counts a slew of cutting-edge dramatists among its alums. Robert Askins' dark comedy Hand to God, which traveled from EST's 74-seat black box to Broadway, may be the 30-year-old program's most high-profile success, but it has also helped launch the careers of Clare Barron (Dance Nation), Charly Evon Simpson (Behind the Sheet) and Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker (The Flick).
Allen applied to Youngblood in 2015 with an early iteration of Redwood, which was inspired by a relative who began researching their family's ancestry, upsetting many of their kin. "Digging into the weeds of one's personal line is a weird exercise for people who come from, obviously, some traumatic connections in America," she says. She decided to center the play on an interracial relationship to explore the "gulfs" she has experienced when discussing racially charged issues with white friends, particularly the 2014 murder of Black teenager Mike Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Allen soon realized that the best way to tackle these tough themes was through humor. "There is so much profound contradiction in everything about how America is constructed," she says. "There's no way to face it but to laugh at it."
As Allen workshopped Redwood, which is having its New York premiere at EST after previous productions at Oregon's Portland Center Stage and Minneapolis' Jungle Theatre, she added a chorus of dancers who start out as students in Stevie's hip-hop class and slowly transform into manifestations of Meg's family history. Fine-tuning such a tonally and thematically complex piece took years of development in Youngblood. It's the kind of long-term new play support that is increasingly imperiled in our country's contracting theatrical landscape, with the loss of venerable programs such as the Humana Festival, The Lark and the Sundance Theatre Program.
"The impact of that family history on Meg and Drew deepens over the course of the play," says Graeme Gillis, EST's co-artistic director and the former co-director of Youngblood. "That is something Brittany has honed over time." His EST co-leader, Estefanía Fadul, adds, "Brittany uses comedy to help excavate a lot of these layers."
Redwood kicks off the first season fully programmed by Gillis and Fadul, the first co-artistic directors in EST's history. The two were selected to lead the institution this past January following the departure of William Carden and a years-long internal review tackling structural inequities within the organization's operations.
EST's process of transformation—which began prior to but was intensified by the protests following George Floyd's murder—necessitated some difficult conversations within the theatre’s staff and membership. Six board members have departed EST since 2019, which associate interim board chair Russell G. Jones said, "certainly felt like white flight in reaction to our coming into alignment with the DEI & anti-racism work."
In Redwood, Meg and Drew muddle through similarly charged conversations as they reckon with their families' respective histories and attempt to imagine a shared future. "Stevie delivers a benediction at the end of the play and says that the ancestors are all around us every day," says Allen. "We are surrounded on all sides by these forces, like ghosts. [We cannot] escape what has come before."
As EST moves forward into a new era, Fadul wants to ensure that the theatre is "a place of belonging, care and joy for people working here, and also for people coming to interact with the work." Gillis and Fadul are taking a personalized approach as they figure out how best to support EST's membership and grow its artistic community. It's still early days, but there has already been one significant shift: Youngblood, a program formerly limited to playwrights age 30 and under, now accepts applications from any self-defined early career dramatist. "You can be discovering yourself as a playwright at all different stages of life," notes Gillis.
Fadul acknowledges that EST is "not immune" to the financial woes plaguing theatres all over the country, making it an especially tough moment to invite more people in. But she says those challenges, along with the loss of other new play development spaces, only "amplify the deep need" for EST to expand its reach.
"EST has this incredible history," Fadul says. "We are trying to grow and build and hopefully make it more open and more welcoming for more people."
TDF MEMBERS: Go here to browse our latest discounts for dance, theatre and concerts.