Eight years ago, Regina Taylor delivered Dallas an intimate peek inside the lives of a few Oak Cliff residents with her Trinity River Plays. The sweeping trilogy covered the 1970s through the '90s, charting a family's dramatic trajectory in a setting that was rich with unique Dallas nuance.
Taylor's newest also tracks a family that's struggling to find their way amid a changing regional landscape, though the time is now and the issues are urgent. Bread shows how present-day South Oak Cliff is caught between the nostalgia of its blue-collar past and the bright but tenuous future that it's hurtling toward. Though the title starts out meaning nourishment, by the end it has been left to molder and turn a green that better exemplifies the problems and promises of money.
The world premiere work, which is receiving a beautifully designed and powerfully acted production at WaterTower Theatre under director Leah C. Gardiner, might sometimes get bogged down by its muddy dialogue and predictable plot, but its emotions are clear.
Even clearer is its soundtrack, a mix of Dallas rapper and singer Sam Lao's rhymes and sound designer Brian McDonald's beats. These musical interludes, performed with swagger and style by UNT student Elliot Marvin Sims in front of vintage and contemporary projections of Dallas by McDonald, rise and swell to convey the family's complicated emotions often better than the script.
It's early 2017, and arts administrator Ruth Baker (Stormi Demerson) is ready to pop with baby boy No. 2. Her adoring husband, James (Djoré Nance) was laid off from his steady government job months ago, but that's not stopping him from shaking hands on a deal to flip real estate with a life-long friend who also happens to be a local politician (Calvin Scott Roberts). James is gathering the money by secretly mortgaging their house, which was sold to him and Ruth 17 years earlier by his brother, a former NFL player who's due to be sprung from jail later that day (his crime? "Driving while black").
Circling them all is Jr. (Sims), recording on his iPhone and narrating to his "online girlfriend in Russia" on the eve of his 18th birthday. When uncle Jebediah (Bryan Pitts) shows up, he's accompanied by his sassy sugar mama of a girlfriend, played by M. Denise Lee. As the outsider Carol, Lee gets the delicious task of speaking her mind and telling truths that the Baker family might not want to hear. She also gets to flaunt an outrageously fabulous costume from Ryan D. Schaap, which ripples in bright contrast to the practical, everyday duds worn by the Bakers.
On a revolving set by Clare Floyd DeVries, this particular family's arc plays out in a quick 90 minutes. There's a rushed quality to a few of the script's points as well, with some of the social issues that are freshest in everyone's minds getting relegated to a predictable plot point. Will this play endure as a seminal work of this particular moment in time? Even if it doesn't, or others follow that more eloquently express what America — particularly black Americans — are feeling and experiencing right now, then at least it started the conversation.
WaterTower Theatre's production of Bread runs through May 6 at the Addison Theatre and Conference Center.