Don’t they understand that what they characterize as color-blindness simply perpetuates white privilege? Why won’t they admit that even though they make exceptions for select members of the minority community that they adhere to white supremacy? Why don’t they see that every news outlet that disagrees with the right-wing media is not left-wing media, but often just reporting events as objectively as they can? Why don’t his supporters realize that even though his detractors hate him, that everything is not about him?
As May often proclaims, she and Ethyl were best friends from the time they were in-vitro. They grew up as Generation Xers on the poor side of El Paso, living next door to one another their whole lives in a neighborhood that was mostly black. They married, and even had their only offspring, both boys, around the same time. The boys would grow up as classmates and best friends. May is black. Ethyl is white.
Victoria Evans Erville has crafted a thoughtful rendering about a roller coaster of friendship and motherhood that touches many bases, intensified by dimensions of race and sexual identity. We meet the young women in 1996 when May is about to give birth. They reveal lightheartedness and a bonding that has over two decades of history as juveniles.
They now see life as adults, and a sharp divide occurs when discussing May’s husband Randal’s deployment to the Middle East. Ethyl’s perspective focuses on Randal’s pride in soldiering and his helping to make America safe by fighting a war far from home. But May resents that because of being a black man, his options are limited. The military was his only way out, and he risks his life for a cause that she questions.
For the remainder of the play, the women, and later their sons, will meet in their yards. History will march on and political and social events will color their lives, especially the Obama and Trump presidencies. Although they continue to share moments, episodes will increasingly reflect their divergence. May becomes protective of and fearful for her son because of the constant threats faced by young black men. Increasingly, Ethyl buys into the narratives posited by Fox News. She also suffers from denial about her son’s being gay and resents that he favors May over her.
The two lead actors give masterful performances. Chelsea Bearce portrays May deftly, capturing her fierce determination that she can better herself and that her son should have a better life than his father. The conviction of her beliefs born of painful experience is convincing.
Kim Donovan embodies an archetype most feared by political liberals. She conveys charm and friendliness that belie deep-seated biases. Like many of her ilk, the privilege afforded her is ingrained. She succumbs to fallacious arguments about the liberal press and fake news and is impervious to facts, so that converting her with truth is difficult. She turns vignettes about individuals who are outside of her tribe into generalizations about whole communities but fails to apply the same principles to her own people. Further, she diminishes the pain of other groups by equating that “we all have our crosses to bear,” not appreciating that blackness, unlike gayness or political beliefs, can’t be hidden or modified.
In a final episode, the women are confronted with an unexpected challenge. May has criticized Ethyl for lacking empathy, and when prodding her to do the right thing, May levels what should be a haymaker to any professed Christian – “What would Jesus do?” Regrettably, many who claim to follow Christ would not act in accordance with his teachings. What will Ethyl do?
The playwright, who also directs, dispatches a dizzying number of important social messages and does so in an entertaining and involving manner. The central theme considers the effects of politics on the two lifelong friends, and while May remains consistent throughout, Ethyl offers more interest as a character because she evolves, and not always in one direction or with consistency, which makes for a more intriguing person and reflects realism.
Another thread concerns family relationships. Though both women love their sons, even true familial love doesn’t always run smooth. The grabber to the title of the play, which is “Mothering is a political act,” also makes a commentary on modern life and why people have children. In past times, procreation was largely automatic with comparatively little thought of consequences. Now it has become a more conscious decision that reflects beliefs and expectations.
Many new plays undergo revision even after their premieres, and some aspects of “The Music of Mothers” might deserve reconsideration. The plot contains endless issues, but it could use more intense dramatic conflict to support them. With all of the fear raised because of one boy being black and the other gay, they don’t experience physically damaging incidents to validate the concerns. Also, the matter of the white son being gay and the mother’s denial recurs often, but some references seem repetitive.
Kudos for simple but effective staging – Seafus Chatmon for scenic, Stephanie Johnson for lighting, and Dave Ragaza for sound design.
A final comment is that in the world of the Bay Area, this play is preaching to the choir. For it to have legs and persuade the unwashed, May might need to have more flaws, even if she should undeniably be the better person. Meanwhile, it is for our crowd to enjoy.
“The Music of Mothers” is a world premiere written by Victoria Evans Erville, produced by TheatreF1rst, and performed at Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA through October 23, 2022.