Shelly is at the end of her rope.
It's December 23. Christmas is in two days, the tree has yet to be bought, the decorations are still in the basement, her brother is still in NYC, her sister is useless, and Mom – oh, yeah, Dot got a very different kind of Christmas present this year. The doctor gave her a diagnosis of Alzheimer's.
Now playing at PlayMakers Repertory Company, Dot is the newest play by Colman Domingo, who has written A Boy and His Soul and Wild with Happy to critical acclaim. Domingo began writing Dot while working as an actor in San Francisco in 2015; he completed the first draft of the play in two weeks. Domingo says the play is about home, about coming home, and about finding that the home you've come back to is not the home you remember anymore.
Dot is set in present-day West Philadelphia, where Domingo grew up. Dot (Kathryn Hunter-Williams) is the matriarch of the Shealy family; she and her now-departed husband Richard have lived at this address since before the kids were born. In this middle-class black family, Richard was the breadwinner as a doctor, but, in the end, his drinking got the better of him. Dot has raised her three children on her own, putting her eldest, Shelly (Rasool Jahan), through college and law school; dealing with her son Donnie's (Samuel Ray Gates) late-blooming (he had a girlfriend all through high school) homosexuality; and Averie (Shanelle Nicole Leonard) – well, Averie is still the baby of the family. At the moment she is living in Shelly's basement and helping to take care of Shelly's son Jason while Shelly is a public defender.
This brings us to the moment the curtain rises on Scene I, with Shelly at the end of her rope. She is trying to get Dot to sign a Power of Attorney so she can act on her mom's behalf; Dot has every intention of doing so – she just keeps forgetting. Right now, Dot keeps asking what the time is; she knows it's two days to Christmas, but can't remember that today's Tuesday. Nor can she remember to eat her breakfast or take her medicine. Shelly has already lost her patience with Mom when Jackie (Leighton Brown) comes in through the back door, like she always has; Jackie was Donnie's girlfriend all through high school and after, for two more years – until she came in one day unannounced and found Donnie and Adam (Adam Poole) making out on the couch. That was twenty years ago. Adam and Donnie are married now and living in New York where Donnie is a writer, but he's not doing so well financially. Jackie has simply come by to borrow some linens; she's back in Philly for a brief stay. She owns the house she grew up in, but now with both her parents gone, she can't bring herself to part with it. So it sits empty. Jackie assumed she'd see Donnie, but he and Adam have not yet gotten into town from NYC. Dot tries and fails to tell Jackie her problem, but once it's out, Jackie and Shelly commiserate. Shelly tells Jackie that she's found a place for Dot that can care for her and her Alzheimer's; but if Donnie and Averie can't help financially, she doesn't know how she's going to swing it. For now, she has found Dot a sitter who comes in daily to give Dot a helping hand, and Shelly pays him $50 a week. His name is Fidel (Rishan Dhamija; we meet him in Act II), and he's from Kazakhstan. Dot reenters, takes one look at Jackie, and tells her she's pregnant, which she indeed is – but she hadn't told Dot so! Dot tells her that a woman who knows a woman as well as she knows Jackie can always tell.
The show is more of an ensemble piece than anything else, but everything revolves around Dot. Hunter-Williams, who has been a PRC member for 18 years, took on the role of Dot with open arms and pulled the character into herself. Once done, she had many different aspects to show us. During her lucid moments, we understood that this was the Dot that has always been happy, warm, and a powerhouse of energy. But when the Alzheimer's takes over, we saw the tentativeness, the confusion, the frustration and anger, and, as she confides in Fidel, the fear. Hunter-Williams gave a Class I performance and earned a standing ovation opening night.
Rasool Jahan as Shelly was a woman who is currently being pulled in too many directions. She's a single mom, a public defender, and she has taken her baby sister into her home. That alone would be plenty; but now with Mom the way she is, it has fallen on Shelly, both because she is the eldest and because the man of the house lives in New York, to see to Mom's care – and it's too much. Shelly is very near the breaking point, as Jahan showed us.
Donnie took his new husband Adam and moved to New York to try and make it as an author, but that was twenty years ago, and he's still working as a copywriter. He and Adam have made a go of it, but Donnie has grown tired of the Fire Island set. Gates played Donnie as a man who has had enough.
Averie was played by Leonard as a free spirit. Averie is at heart an actress even though her prospects are not the best. She has hired a manager and an agent, and despite working at the same grocery store she worked at as a teen, she does get the occasional call for real work. Of all the characters, Averie has the best outlook on life.
Fidel is still working on his asylum here in the US from unrest in Kazakhstan. He speaks with a thick accent, having learned English from watching films. He says that this not only allows him to speak English with all its idioms, it also allows him to see into the character of America. He is a simple, kind soul who is soft-spoken and attentive to his charge. He also takes a moment to "phone home" (a la "E. T.") on his laptop to speak to his own mother. Dhamija plays Fidel with just a touch of his own confusion as regards this offbeat family.
As Jackie, Leighton Brown may have the most complex character of all. She's "the only white Jewish girl in a black neighborhood," who pretty much lost it when she learned of Donnie's homosexuality. She actually asks Donny, "So, I didn't turn you gay?" She too has a good heart, but it is clear she always intended to be a part of this family, which indeed she is. She even moved to New York herself; she lives in Harlem!
Brown lives and works out of New York; Jahan has spent some time in L. A., but makes her home in Raleigh where she grew up. This is her fourth performance with PRC, fifth if you count her role as Assistant Director in PRC's Count. Everyone else is a member of the PRC troupe; Samuel Gates makes his debut as a company member; Dhamija, Leonard, and Poole are all working in the Professional Actor Training Program. These seven actors work so well together that we had absolutely no problem believing they were the family they seemed to be in yet another finely tuned and stellar PRC performance. Director Nicole Watson has cemented the relationships between these characters and makes us believe the rocky history that has brought them to this point. This is a different kind of Christmas story, and one well worth your attention.
Dot continues through Sunday, December 10. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.