There is a crack running down the dining room wall. Deborah (De’Adre Aziza) tries to hide it, to cover it up with—of all things—Ellis Wilson’s Funeral Procession. Some of the floorboards are rotting, too, so she moves the table over those. You see, Deborah lives the politics of respectability; all flaws must be covered up. Her children, Mark (Karl Green) and Lauren (Kadijah Raquel), are comically polite at dinner—salmon, “both nutritious and delicious,” Deborah chirps—and virtually half their speech is comprised of pleases and thank yous and you’re welcomes. It reeks of The Cosby Show. Incidentally, it was an episode of Cosby that made Wilson’s painting famous, another hint that this portrait of everything-being-perfectly-fine is on the verge of shattering.
In reality, Deborah is harassed at work, a victim of casual racism and sexual predation. She is lonely, misses her ex-husband, and shoulders most of the burden of raising the kids—he only takes them twice a month. Meanwhile, Mark is hypnotized by videos of police brutality, hiding his habit as if it were pornography. Lauren is actually fine, a typical teenager trying to figure out what kind of adult she wants to be, but she’s gay and that unsettles Deborah, especially when she brings home Upendo Haki Supreme (Ashley D. Kelley), a confrontational, overweight idealist who is anything but respectable. After dropping several hints about Weight Watchers, Deborah finally blurts out, “This whole fat acceptance trend is encouraging black women to eat themselves to death.” Death being the operative word, since Deborah’s respectability is not a choice so much as a strategy for survival. “Our home is a safe place,” she announces early in Eve’s Song, as if speaking the words will make them true. “Nothing bad can happen to us within these four walls.” Playwright Patricia Ione Lloyd suggests otherwise: black women are murdered along with black men, the rich and degreed as easily as the poor and vulnerable.
Eve’s Song, then, is a menacing comedy if not a comedy of menace, eliciting the kind of giddy laughter that anticipates terror. Aziza’s nervous performance emphasizes the feeling of claustrophobia, recalling Vivien Leigh in Rebecca or Nora in the Young Vic’s recent production of A Doll’s House, while Raquel plays Lauren with an endearing, laid-back familiarity. She acts as a counterpoint to Deborah’s anxiety, just as Upendo’s mythological inclinations balance out the kitchen sink domestic drama in which she cameos. When Upendo first meets Lauren, she is trying to remember her song, “the song all the molecules in your body hum before you have an orgasm … the song on the wind in the garden of Eden.” She tells Lauren, “We remember our song when we die and we sing it with the spirits that come to take us in death.” Throughout the play, three actors (Vernice Miller, Rachel Watson-Jih, and Tamara M. Williams) sing snatches of this song, so to speak, reciting poems about their violent deaths that act as interludes between scenes. More devastating, however, are the absences, or the implications hanging in the silence as the family chews their dinner. Waiting for their father, Mark asks, “Did he fix his tail light?” At first, it’s an innocuous question. After a pause, it’s not.