BU’s Nathan Alan Davis’ The Refuge Plays Opens Off Broadway
Roundabout Theatre Company stages “epic” about a Black family that made a home in the deep woods
The poster calls it “an epic tale told in three generations.”
Playwright Nathan Alan Davis’ The Refuge Plays explores the life of one unusual African American family. Opening Off Broadway tonight, the play spans three acts and 70 years, all taking place in one small clearing deep in the woods of southern Illinois.
“I do think that people are excited about digging into something big,” says Davis, head of Boston University’s MFA in Playwriting Program and a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of the practice of playwriting.
After two weeks of previews, The Refuge Plays premieres Wednesday at the Laura Pels Theatre in New York, presented by the Tony Award-winning Roundabout Theatre Company, in association with New York Theatre Workshop.
The play is actually a group portrait of four generations of the family, going backward in time from the present to the 1950s, featuring ghosts and a bit of magical realism along the way, as characters arrive, leave, and return over the years. Directed by Patricia McGregor, it stars Nicole Ari Parker as Early, the matriarch, Jon Michael Hill as her son, Walking Man, and Jessica Francis Dukes as her daughter-in-law Gail.
“It’s a Black family that lives in a forest in southern Illinois, and they have created their own kind of refuge,” Davis says. “On one level, it’s finding a place to retreat to, a kind of protection, but then also you are isolated from the world, right? What does that do?
“That’s a thing that I would imagine many people can relate to on some level or another, the idea of creating a place for yourself. And what that means, what that might cost you.”
The parts are presented in the order Davis wrote them, with the present day first, the 1970s second, and the 1950s section last, following the family back in time to the roots of their isolation. When he wrote the first act, Davis was planning three separate plays, but the feedback he got to the first play from his cohort in a writing fellowship at Juilliard was: “We want more.”
“You see a thing happening to them, and then you go back and kinda find out, how did we get here?” he says. “Connecting those dots in the story, I think the audience takes some delight in that, to go through and learn about a character and then see them at a younger age.
“I never really thought about doing it the other way; I think it would be interesting to play it the other direction, but just for a thought experiment.”
The three-act play is more than three and a half hours long, with two intermissions and a cast of 10. What would Davis say if one of his students came to him with a work like that?
“That would be great,” he says with a slight smile. “To the implied point of your question—that it isn’t very practical to have a very large cast, a show that’s very complicated, hard to produce—actually the size of it was what really attracted the collaborators that I have.
“Trisha McGregor, the director, was very excited by the large gesture of it, actually even more than me. I was saying, hey, I don’t think a theater is going to produce this. Like, we probably need to do it one at a time, look at doing it in rep, you know. But she was really excited by the big thing, and we were able to get theaters on board to develop it with that in mind.”
Getting the “epic” to the stage took seven years of development, including off and on readings and workshops and a temporary derailment courtesy of the pandemic.
On one level, it’s finding a place to retreat to, a kind of protection, but then also you are isolated from the world, right? What does that do?
“It definitely took a long time to come together,” Davis says, “but sometimes if you’re only focused on producibility or ‘how can I appeal to what I think people want,’ you miss an opportunity to do something bigger. And sometimes that big thing might be the thing that actually opens the door. Because you’re just trying to communicate to people what you’re about and hope that people receive it.”
The Roundabout and New York Theatre Workshop are high-profile Off Broadway companies (the Roundabout also produces on Broadway), but The Refuge Plays is just one highlight of a busy year for Davis, who also had the world premiere of his The High Ground produced at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., directed by BU colleague and friend Megan Sandberg-Zakian, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre artistic director. His Eternal Life Part 1 premiered at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia in April, and his Origin Story bowed at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in May.
“In a period of industry belt-tightening, The Refuge Plays is a remarkable commitment by two major Off-Broadway companies to an expansive, 10-actor piece by a playwright with relatively little name recognition” American Theatre magazine writes, noting that Davis has had only one previous New York production, Nat Turner in Jerusalem, in 2016. “Yet Davis’s banner year, and the two theatres’ commitment to Refuge, speak to the high regard in which he is held.”
Davis allows that it’s an exciting year, but he’s reluctant to blow his own horn. The confluence of premieres is largely coincidental, in part a result of COVID rescheduling.
“Playwriting is a very slow burn for the most part,” he says. “All of the plays I’ve had produced this year started several years ago, and they all had their own particular journeys. The fact that they all culminated in ’23 was not planned.”
Davis is grateful for the end result of the long process for The Refuge Plays.
“It’s always hard to know what will come of it, right? In terms of [career], does it result in this or that? I think more than anything it’s just the fact that people would put that much time and resources into a production,” he says. “That’s really exciting. ’Cause you wanna be able to dream big, right? It’s just encouraging to know that you don’t necessarily have to shrink your ambition or your imagination to get a production.”
The Refuge Plays runs through November 12 at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W 46th St., New York, New York. Purchase tickets here.