A new Lisa B. Thompson play is an occasion.
Not only is Thompson an associate professor of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas, but she is also one of Austin’s most accomplished playwrights, having crafted a series of works that explore the African-American experience, both historically and today, with depth, nuance, and emotional and intellectual precision.
The world premier of Thompson’s latest play, “Monroe,” at Austin Playhouse is no exception to this rule. Set in Monroe, La., in 1946, the play explores the aftermath of a lynching on the young victim’s family and friends. For such a heavy premise, though, “Monroe” is not a play that wallows in pity. Rather, it celebrates the life, love and vivaciousness of the survivors and explores the varied resonances of what it means to either stay or move away in the wake of such a tragedy.
Unfortunately, this production of “Monroe” doesn’t quite fully click. Director Lara Toner Haddock, though very talented, does not seem to be the perfect match for this subject matter. The anger and menace that are embedded within the subtext of the play never quite come forth on the stage, leaving one with a sense of low stakes and low energy when, in fact, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
A shining exception to this is Kriston Woodreaux as Clyde James, who was the first person to find the lynched boy, Jefferson. Woodreaux’ approach to the role is brimming with charm and good humor, while just underneath the surface hides a deeply wounded sense of trauma, confusion and bitterness. His performance most closely gets to the nature of the PTSD that this entire community is experiencing, even though that feeling is missing elsewhere in the production.
It’s important to note that this is the world premiere of “Monroe” and thus just the start of a long journey that is likely to see the play take on many permutations. It is a vital look at an aspect of American history that far too many of us still choose to ignore, and as such this is hopefully only the first of many stagings of a work that has the potential, to quote Thompson’s own program note, to lead us to “speak the unspeakable, listen to history, and imagine a better future.”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 30
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.