Pain is such a short, sharp word that it’s possible to forget that the worst sorts of it are longer sufferings, both dull throbs and pure torture.
And in America, a nation established on pain and hope, we have a complex relationship with both sorts. “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red” runs its fingers deep into that relationship and confronts one of America’s deepest cuts: lynchings.
But confronting our history is how we begin to heal it. Certainly a very brave move by playwright Lekethia Dalcoe and her vicious script and not one undertaken lightly by the cast of three.
Take a deep breath before you step through the door. In this purgatory, Mary (Tiffany Addison), Sidney (Gregory Fenner) and Hayes (Ronald L. Conner) fight to remember their lives and answer the questions that they fear most about their past. Dirt falls from the ceiling next to nooses while plots of righteous murder and cruel executions run between scenes of the lives stolen from them and the gaps that these three try to recover.
Punctuated by scenes of straightforward drama, the rest of the play is a surreal discovery of injustice, disembodied shouts and, again, pain. The actors are powerful. Fenner manifests rage with spit and fire, while Addison holds your hand as best she can. And Conner does some work that will make your skin crawl and your heart ache.
However, this is the fundamental problem: there is little redemption to this pain. Narratives that track and detail pain have incredible value, but there’s nothing here that makes life feel worth it. Even the love that tracks through the play (Mary and Hayes are expecting) is decimated by the atrocities committed by this country against black people. Even with the spectacle, even with the filter of fiction and magic, “A Small Oak Tree” is difficult to recommend due to the power of these actors, script and director.
But this history must be looked at and learned from. While there might be a better way to do it than this, I don’t know what that would look like. (Jay Van Ort)
Congo Square Theatre at the Athenaeum, 2936 North Southport, (773)935-6875, athenaeumtheatre.org, $22. Through July 3.