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Bernarda's Daughters

Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 23, 2023

Pascale Armand and Alana Raquel Bowers
Photo by Monique Carboni
In lieu of a playbill or the increasingly more ubiquitous fliers containing a digital QR code, audiences attending Bernarda's Daughters, Diane Exavier's elegiac play currently running at the Pershing Square Signature Center, receive a promotional hand fan with the production information (and QR code) included. The fan is an appropriate and practical substitute for the traditional program. The dog days of summer are still a few months away, but the co-production by The New Group and National Black Theatre, which is set in a sweltering Flatbush house, evokes the sizzling passions, rage, and familial deceptions spanning three generations of Abellard women.

The play is inspired by Federico García Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, which was first performed in 1945. In that play, Bernarda Alba is a dictatorial mother with five daughters and whose second husband has recently died. Following family precedent, Bernarda decrees that the house will observe a period of eight years of mourning, and all the women are forbidden from having romantic relationships during that time. The sexually repressed household teems with erotic desire and sibling rivalry, and the sisters turn against each over a duplicitous suitor and an unequal inheritance distribution. Bernarda's mother also lives in the house, and although she issues dire warnings about the effects the mourning period will have on the women, she is generally sequestered from the family.

In Exavier's version, the focus of the play shifts to the daughters, and their mother Bernarda does not appear, though her presence is strongly felt. The matriarch has travelled to her native Haiti to bury her second husband, and the sisters, as the playwright's note explains, "lounge around the living room" of their Brooklyn home. They do, however, "go away and come back, like a spiral returning to itself."

The oldest family member is Louise (a commanding Pascale Armand), who is a half-sister to the other women and is Bernarda's stepdaughter. Louise will presumably inherit the large Edwardian house in which the family lives, but she is distrustful of her late father's and her stepmother's handling of the property. The next oldest, Harriet (a sympathetic Alana Raquel Bowers), is the practical sister, and she is clearsighted in both love and business. The middle sister Maryse (fiery Malika Samuel) is outspoken about her sexual longings and looks down on her sisters for adhering to their mother's imposed repression.

Adela (in a moving performance by Taji Senior) is the second youngest sister, and she is the most closely tapped into (and simultaneously cut off from) the family's legacies and ancestral Haitian homeland. The youngest of the five, Lena (a humorously blasé Kristin Dodson), tries to remain disengaged from the family discord within as well as the political protests outside. She tells her sisters, "I'm happy to stay away from all that mess anyway. You never know what can happen in those protests. I just mind my business. Go to school and come back home."

The sisters' grandmother, Florence Delva (a wonderful Tamara Tunie), is generally locked up in her room, supposedly for her own good, and when she's not watching soap operas, she's communing with spirits and fighting unseen forces for a lover she has long ago lost.

Exavier's lush and entrancing writing resides alternately somewhere between naturalism and lyricism. There are, for instance, contemporary allusions to police violence, and the sounds of Black protest can be heard right outside the Abellard home. (Kathy Ruvuna effectively designed the sound.) References to gentrification and white privilege help ground the play in an immediately recognizable time and place.

Embedded within the dialogue and the periodic aria-like monologues are riffs on canonical and lesser-known poets and poems. For instance, in a lengthy, idyllic passage Maryse muses on her own sexual desires, which she compares to the inscrutable behaviors of cats. She says, "When I'm inside having sex in the summer/ I want to be thinking about those cats, too./ And I want my love to love thinking about the cats as much as I do." The passage, in fact, riffs on Mary Ruefle's "Snow," which centers around birds in the winter. In that poem, the speaker ruminates, "When I am inside having sex while it snows I want/ to be thinking about the birds too, and I want my/ love to love thinking about the birds as much as I do."

The description of this rich and multilayered text may sound at best, intellectually daunting, and at worst, emotionally off putting. Yet, director Dominique Rider and an excellent ensemble give the material immediacy and dramatic urgency without diluting the dreamlike quality.

The design elements contribute to the juxtaposition of the topical with the metaphorical. Carlos J. Soto surrounds the stage with a skeletal wooded frame that resembles a house before the drywall has been installed. The entire structure, except the gaping rectangular openings where windows and doors would be, is covered in black scrim. The effect is akin to standing outside and peering into the family house. We observe them as if looking through a gauzy funeral veil. (Marika Kent's lighting contributes to the theatrical dreamscape and Rodrigo Muñoz's costumes effectively blend New York City streetwear with Caribbean styles.)

Bernarda's Daughters is a deeply earnest play, but it doesn't take itself too seriously. After the long discursive monologue about cats and sex and lovers in bed on hot summer nights, Adela responds to her sibling, "Jesus, all that to say you're horny?" Spoken like a true younger sister.

Bernarda's Daughters
Through June 4, 2023
The New Group / National Black Theatre
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: