DCPA world premiere a powerful, poignant exploration of family

Early in the first scene of “Last Night and the Night Before,” when Nadima opens the door to her Brooklyn apartment and sees Monique standing there, the frozen, stilted reaction of both women tells us a lot about what lies ahead. In this story of complex relationships and bad decisions, the fact that Nadima dryly tells her girlfriend Rachel in the other room there’s “a surprise” at the door not only gives us insight into what Nadima thinks of Rachel’s sister, but that this is unlikely to be a happy reunion.

While it’s soon clear Monique is the troubled younger sister, the extent of her problems is borne out through a gradual reveal, with playwright Donnetta Lavinia Grays building much of the suspense through what we don’t know. Like most junkies, Monique is naturally inclined to vague answers, fact omissions and outright lies, but what’s brought her from rural Georgia to her sister’s upscale NYC apartment is of a particularly dark nature, and it takes a lot to tease it out.

This show, a world premiere developed in part through the DCPA New Play Summit in 2017, is a beautifully staged production that opens with a bare set and a man digging what appears to be a grave. Standing nearby, in near darkness, are Monique (Keona Welch) and a young girl (Zaria Kelley). The man is Reggie (Sharod Choyce), who we later find out is Monique’s husband. But as the curtain rises to show Nadima’s and Rachel’s high-end apartment, the scene is all but forgotten as we’re thrust into the world of three women and a girl trying to sort things out.

Director Valerie Curtis-Newton has a lot to work with here with Grays’s script, and she makes the most of the stellar cast to tell this story in a way only theater can. Kelley, a fine young actress who lands in the center of nearly every scene as Monique’s daughter Sam, has a lot of lines but also communicates very well with her face and her body. So, too, does Erin Cherry as the humorless Nadima, whose intense dislike and distrust of Monique is only tempered by her affection for Sam. As Rachel, Bianca LaVerne Jones does a beautiful job in the unenviable position as peacemaker, balancing her love for Nadima with her desire to help her sister and her family.

This may be an all African-American cast, director and playwright, but it’s a universal story about family, relationships, growing up and complex situations that appear to have no solution. By the final curtain, I felt like I knew each one of the characters incredibly well — a sure sign of great theater. Each one of the performances was so rich and authentic, it’s hard to pick a favaorit (kudos to Harriet Bass and Grady Soapes who cast it perfectly) — although Kelley is irresistible as the cute and precocious Sam who ages before our eyes.

I did at times have trouble understanding Welch and Kelley, with their Southern accents. I’d say maybe that’s due to my Yankee ear, but my Alabama wife had the same problem. The show also felt about 15 minutes too long, with some scenes dragging.

That aside, “Last Night and the Night Before” is a fine addition to the theatrical canon of screwed-up families. It skillfully teeters between comedy and tragedy, with much of the humor coming from the culture clash between country and city, as well as some coming-of-age moments for Sam that were particularly hilarious. (And I learned a term for breasts I’d never heard before: “titty bones.”) What Reggie tells Sam about becoming a woman in a flashback and how she later relates that guy-knowledge to Aunt Rachel when her “monthly” arrives for the first time is both touching and tremendously funny. The scenes also underscore the absence of Monique in Sam’s life and the tough choices Reggie and Rachel must make to fill in the gaps.

Dead bodies aside, here’s a show for anyone who can relate to coping with an annoying relative, confronting a tough problem that defies fixing, navigating a mismatched set of priorities between lovers, or who’s ever been challenged by the complexities of growing up.

In other words, it’s a show for all of us.

“Last Night and the Night Before” plays at the Denver Center Ricketson Theatre through Feb. 24.