Horizon Theatre’s Production of Tree Examines Race and Family

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Donna Biscoe in Horizon Theatre's Tree

Donna Biscoe as Mrs. Price in Tree. Photo courtesy of Horizon Theatre

While Tree may not be the play that Horizon Theatre originally planned to produce, it is a thought-provoking play that brings people together. Offering a look at contemporary issues, the play, written by Julie Hébert, provides a provocative look at identity, race, dementia and family. As the play unfolds, the characters must face their own pasts to reconcile the present.

Replacing a play may seem simple to do, but season subscribers had already bought tickets to see Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, and artistic Director, Lisa Alder, wanted to find a new play that would bring different races and backgrounds together. In addition, she was looking for something that would showcase the talents of Donna Biscoe, who plays Ms. Price in Tree. After networking with others, she came across the play. “I read the play, and it resonated on different levels,” Adler comments. While the play has a focus on racial issues, it examines family dynamics.

In the play, the idea of how family members care for one another stands as the central question of the play, which fits in with Adler’s goal to find a play that “brings both audiences together” and allows them to “see how we are more alike we are than different.” Likewise Biscoe states, “Seeing the play will hopefully spark discussion about race and family and true love despite of color.”

Elder care stands as large family issue that the play explores. One issue in that area that society has begun to take another look at is the care for parents with dementia. For many families, the need to care for a loved one suffering from dementia causes both emotional and financial stress.

Adler states that this issue is something our culture will have to face more often as the baby boomers grow older. Not only are they facing the situation with their parents, but many of their own children are dealing with the difficulties of dementia as they, themselves, fall victim to it. This play, in a way, begins to facilitate a discussion and forces the issue out into the public consciousness.

In addition, Adler comments that as a society we face the difficult question: “How do we care for and deal with dementia?” Tree explores this question as one its sub-plots. In the play, Mrs. Price suffers from dementia, requiring her son, played by Geoffrey D. Williams, to put his life on hold to care for her.

As Mrs. Price, Biscoe has learned more about the effects of dementia. “The research that I conducted during the show on dementia has changed my reality about aging and the effects it can have on family,” says Biscoe. “I have a deeper understanding and more compassion for those who become caregivers and the effects on them. It’s also made me want to hold on to my memories as long as humanly possible.”

Another aspect of family that the play focuses on is the need for family connections. For the character of Didi Marcantel, played by Megan Hayes, the need to find family who can help her make sense of her past becomes an overwhelming task. “Didi loses a sense of family connection. She is desperate to find it,” comments Adler.

Like the struggles with dementia, the need for family connections rings true with today’s baby boomers who may have lost connection with family over the years. Now that they are older, the importance of family has become more real to them. Similar to Didi’s search for familial connections, that age group is also searching to rebuild lost connections. Adler states that middle-aged people become more interested in family because they “value it more and need the security that [was]lost.”

For Biscoe, playing Mrs. Price in the play has had a profound effect on her as a person. “Since I started working on the project I’ve become more aware of my family as a whole. I’ve asked my mom questions about parts of my family that I really didn’t know about,” she states. “There were things I never knew about my grandmother that I always wondered about but never asked and since the show I have.”

Geoffrey D. Williams and Megan Hayes in Tree at Horizon Theatre

Geoffrey D. Williams and Megan Hayes in Tree. Photo courtesy of Horizon Theatre

More than just a play about family, the story has its foundation in racial issues. Through Mrs. Price’s memories, the audience learns of a lost love from the Jim Crow era. At the same time, her son and Didi are unraveling their own mystery – finding the truth behind letters Mrs. Price sent to Didi’s father. Prior to the events in the play, Mrs. Price, an African-American woman, and Mr. Marcantel, a white man, have had a romantic relationship.

Their relationship and the way the families deal with it, both in the past and the present, drives the plot of the play. At one point Mrs. Price, remembering the events of the past, longs for a day when interracial couples and babies would be accepted. “People during the time period of the play had serious issues about race, both black and white. Society frowned on interracial relationships, but in the end the play is a love story,” Biscoe comments. “If society were able to follow the hearts of the characters in the play we could possibly see past color.”

Before she was in Tree, Biscoe starred in Theatrical Outfit’s production of The Green Book. In that play, she also played a woman who struggles with the effects of Jim Crow. Even though their situations were different, Biscoe has found a similarity in the two.

“As we all know during Jim Crow it was illegal for blacks and whites to fraternize, and both characters found themselves in that position. In The Green Book that decision was made for her by her sister, but once faced with it, she and her husband chose to do the right thing,” Biscoe says. “In Tree she simply chooses to follow her heart. In both [plays] characters make a conscious choice not to be afraid. Despite what society said or what the laws were, they chose to follow love and conscience.”

Tree taps into the fabric of American society and forces the audience to examine their own situations. The driving theme of the play is the search for family connections, and in a society where families are becoming more disconnected and more diverse, this play can serve as a catalyst for discussion and enlightenment. “We tell stories because we remember them. We can’t remember 20 bullet points, but we can remember that play or that movie,” states Adler.

Directed by Lisa Adler, the Atlanta premiere of Julie Hébert’s Tree plays at Horizon Theatre through October 16. For tickets and more information please visit www.horizontheatre.com.

By: Kenny Norton