There’s a lot to like, even love, about Donnetta Lavinia Grays’s Last Night and the Night Before, which was developed during the 2017 Denver Center Theatre Company’s New Play Summit (this year’s is set to begin February 16) and is now receiving a full-blown production in this world premiere. Throughout the first act, I was entranced and delighted by the story about family dynamics, culture, place, dysfunction and the struggle of a little girl, Sam, with remembered trauma as the adults around her try to assume the task of nurturing and healing her. But in the second act, things became less persuasive.
We first see a prologue of sorts: a woman silently sitting, stage left; a man on stage right digging what turns out to be a grave; and a child seated in the middle, between the two. There’s no interaction among the three. For long minutes, the only sound is the man’s panting breath. Then the woman, Monique, gathers up the child. She speaks to her with a maternal mixture of impatience and gentleness as the two begin a long journey from Vixten, Georgia, to New York City and the upscale apartment of Monique’s sister, Rachel, and her lover, Nadima. The tension is almost immediate. Nadima has experience with Monique, who brings confusion and disruption. But Rachel, remembering the difficult childhood that she and Monique shared and feeling guilt because she was able to escape and Monique wasn’t, wants desperately to take in both her sister and her bewildered niece, Sam.
Wandering the apartment, Monique comments on the travel photographs on the walls — have Rachel and Nadima visited all those exotic places? They haven’t. Nadima’s work is staging houses for sale, and the photographs lack specific meaning or memory; they’re used to make a lived-in house seem universal and new to prospective buyers. This is significant, because truth is deceptive and frequently covered up in Last Night. Monique has a clear reason for leaving their Georgia home with Sam and making plans to confront Reggie, her cheating husband. But then she vanishes, leaving the child behind, and her reasoning dissolves.
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The action moves fluidly — and occasionally a little confusingly — between past and present. We see Reggie and Monique still happily in love, celebrating her swelling belly. And also Reggie, clearly a devoted father, playing clapping games with a laughing Sam. The play’s title derives from one of those games: “Not last night but the night before/Twenty-four robbers came knocking at my door.”
I think part of the reason some of the energy fades in the second act is that while the struggles between Rachel and Nadima occur in the play’s present time, much of the second act goes over past ground and feels expository. The two women are unsure if they’ll be able to co-parent Sam, as Rachel longs to do; the audience has invested in their relationship, and the ground beneath them seems to be cracking. As written, both women are vital and complex, and they’re played by very strong and expressive actors — Bianca Laverne Jones as Rachel and Erin Cherry as Nadima. When Nadima vanishes from the action halfway through, some of the air seems to leak from the production. Sharod Choyce is warm and charming as Reggie, and Keona Welch perfectly communicates Monique’s dreamy sadness, but the scenes given this couple are more talky and less filled with dramatic tension than the action between the lesbian couple, despite a fair amount of yelling. The talented Zaria Kelley is a lively and moving Sam, but it’s hard for someone this young to carry as much of the evening’s emotional weight as she does.
Still, I’m remembering a scene in which Sam, having seen blood on her sheets, wonders whether she’s dying, and Rachel tries to explain both the physical and symbolic meaning of what has happened. I’ve rarely seen anything as lovely, intimate and touching as their interaction. For moments like this, and many other small but deep felicities, it’s more than worth experiencing Last Night and the Night Before.
Last Night and the Night Before, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 24, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org. The 2019 New Play Summit runs February 16-17 and again February 23-24; find out more here.