Mauricio Miranda and Kayla Carter in River City.

Mauricio Miranda and Kayla Carter in River City.

Review: River City at Phoenix Theatre 

*****
River City, a new play by Diana Grisanti, is layered and endearing, contemporary and historical. With compassion, humor, and hope, it explores what it's like to live in a supposedly post-racial world, rejecting the limitations of labels yet yearning for roots.

As the play opens, a pregnant Mary (Kayla Carter) has just finished cleaning out her father Edward’s Chicago home after his passing. She shows her husband, trendy Chef Javier (Mauricio Miranda), some of the things she is curious about. Why did her father keep this wrinkled old poster of Muhammad Ali, for example? Or this clump of wires? And who is the other man in this photo labeled “Ed and me”?

Mary wishes she had asked her father more questions when he was alive. Edward was black, Mary’s mother, Ruth (Julie Dixon), is white, and they divorced when Mary was young. Neither talked much about the past but Mary decides to visit her mother in Louisville and see if she can get some answers now.

click to enlarge Ben Rose (left) and Matt Herndon (right) in River City.
  • Ben Rose (left) and Matt Herndon (right) in River City.

As Mary learns more from her mother and others, so do we. The lights change and we go back to when Edward (Matt Herndon) was the only black child in an otherwise white orphanage in Louisville. The new priest, Father Schroeder (A. J. Morrison) wants to send him to a more fully integrated orphanage in Minnesota because he keeps getting into fights that get him kicked off sports teams but an Italian nun, Sister Alice (Julie Dixon), insists that Edward needs to stay in Louisville.

If he can’t play sports, she will find another extracurricular activity for him to fulfill that requirement. She sends him to Whitney Deelie’s (Ben Rose) radio shop in the black part of town to ask for a job.

click to enlarge A.J. Morrison and Julie Dixon in River City.
  • A.J. Morrison and Julie Dixon in River City.

Pieces of the walls on Jeffery Martin’s intimate yet multi-location set have been peeled back to reveal other layers underneath. As we move back and forth in time and watch Mary peel back layers of meaning in her family’s story, too, we see that nothing and no one anywhere is 100 percent of any one thing. Life in a multicultural world is complex and relationships still take work.

“I get so tired of explaining my ethnicity,” Mary says to Javier at one point. “I am not special. I don’t want to be special. My hair is not exotic. Neither is your food.”

But the complexity is a gift and the relationships are worth the work.

Under Dale McFadden’s direction, the whole ensemble is strong, both as individual characters and in relationships with each other. I was especially moved by Ben Rose’s portrayal of Whitney — a man committed to living and working in his neighborhood, no matter how it changed.

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