Great Depression-era play draws upon the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus and racial discrimination

Blood-bound and Tongue-tied

At the Strand Theater through April 7

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The Strand Theater’s world premiere of Washington, D.C.-based playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Blood-bound and Tongue-tied had promise. Lawton has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and named one of the nation’s leading black playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute, among other accolades. The play’s intense pitch is evident from the first scene, in which Jocasta (Kelli Wright) tells her brother Creon (Morgan Mosley) that she intends to pass for white. Set in Great Depression-era Texas, Lawton’s play creates a scene in which racial discrimination is the norm while drawing upon the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus for inspiration.

Yet both the play and the Strand’s production are ultimately flawed. Scenes are short and lack development, with a blackout every three minutes hurtling the audience into yet another snippet. This rapidfire approach, while unique, undermines the actors’ ability to form characters with plausible relationships. A Baltimore local with training from Julliard, Wright’s acting is solid—but the script inhibits her ability to portray any internal struggles, or the intrinsic difficulty of passing as white. Chris Knight, who plays her white husband Laius, is a weaker actor; his professions of love to Jocasta—and even his anger later in the play—are often unconvincing and stilted. The relationship between Jocasta and Creon interestingly straddles sibling love and hate: however, Creon’s assertions that he both hates her and misses her are ultimately unpersuasive.

When Jocasta becomes pregnant with Laius’ child, Jenna (Ann Turiano)—Laius’ ex-girlfriend—finds out, telling Jocasta that secrets can’t be so easily kept in “this little family of ours.” Turiano, though her role is small, delivers a solid, compelling performance. Soon after, Jocasta, fearing her racial heritage will emerge once the child is born, lies to her husband and tells him she was raped. Her falsehood instigates a wave of intense bloodshed and violence, as Laius attempts to rid the community of all “niggers.” Laius’ transition from a kind, supportive husband—and a champion of civil rights—to a bloodthirsty, bigoted monster is undeveloped and underwritten. Weak acting coupled with a lack of subtlety in the script undermine the complexity of the issues and the potential power of the play’s themes.

Unfortunately, Jocasta and Laius’ son Oedipus (Derek Cooper)—who is born and quickly grows up over the course of the play—is overacted, and we receive almost no insight into his character except through a few “dream snippets” in which he murders his father and kisses his mother. Those who are familiar with the Oedipus myth can guess what happens next. Yet with the final revelation, Jocasta’s face barely registers the horror of what has happened and the play trails off with little emotional impact.

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