Travis Barbour, Malynne Smith, Ria Alexander, and Benjamin Rowe.

By: Darryl Reilly

A matador and a bull are playfully suggested by a husband and wife who perform an exhilarating dance number in their kitchen accompanied by thrilling lighting and rousing music; this is a glorious highlight of author Victor Vauban Junior’s entrancing play, Leaves. Mr. Vauban has created a positive Black domestic drama where his appealing and defined characters converse and ruminate in euphoric poetic dialogue. The plot gradually unfolds with psychological depth. Laughter and pain abound.

It is 2009 in Syracuse, New York. Skilled laborer Curtis and his stay-at-home wife Muriel are to celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary with their grown son and daughter who live at home. Curtis surprises Muriel with plane tickets for a week-long trip to Spain. We learn that he fell madly in love with her college. She was in a singing act with her two sisters which she left to marry him. Muriel’s upper middle-class sisters arrive from Manhattan for the party; familial tensions and resentments are revealed. The sisters complain about the cracked roof that is still unrepaired since their last visit six months ago. The kitchen is strewn with leaves that have fallen through.

Through his supreme command of dramatic writing Vauban offers an engrossing take on the contemporary Black American experience. The Obamas are referenced, the impact of Soul music is imparted, and the importance of love and family is depicted. Leaves is comprised of realism, fantasy, flashbacks and musical numbers, all perfectly realized by Vauban’s craft. His vision is fulfilled by the grand cast.

Ria Alexander and Benjamin Rowe.

Leaves soars on Ria Alexander’s colossal performance as Muriel. Clad in a housedress with the force of a 1950’s Paddy Chayefsky matriarch, the animated Ms. Alexander races around the kitchen while conveying Muriel’s joy and optimism, with her cheerily expressive voice and beaming presence. Alexander majestically veers from brightness to darkness.

At the performance under review, the play’s other roles were performed by the following rotating cast members. With his sunny presence and booming articulation, Benjamin Rowe is a delight as the boisterous Curtis. Mr. Rowe and Alexander achieved palpable marital chemistry. The vivacious Malynne Smith brought punchy girlishness to the part of the daughter and exhibited dramatic intensity as Young Muriel. As the hyper son, John Jackson was hilariously explosive. The soulful Travis Barbour was achingly passionate as the romantic Young Curtis. Deliciously broad as Muriel’s imperious sisters were Valerie Donaldson and Soyini Crenshaw who each exhibited distinctive comedic flair and histrionic range.

Travis Barbour and Malynne Smith.

Vauban’s direction is as accomplished as writing. The actors are positioned with precision and plentiful movement sequences are dynamically choreographed, all achieving flow, momentum and visual variety. Vauban’s scenic design with Loa Saez’s preparation and painting, and builder Jon McHatton, is an arresting configuration which vibrantly represents the house, its kitchen and a long porch area where flashbacks are enacted. Leaves and foliage are abundant and on view throughout. Gilbert (Lucky) Perto’s vigorous lighting design complement’s the piece’s tones, moods and dimensions with mesmerizing effect. Cosume designer Everett Clark vividly clothes the cast with jaunty style and individual panache.

Nina Simone is cited in the program as an influence on Leaves, with her statement, “The artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” Victor Vauban Junior achieves that and much more with his towering play.

Leaves (through February 18, 2024)
BSOU’ Repertory Theater Company Producer: Everett Clark
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission


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