In ‘Wilder Gone,’ the Pull of Soil, Soul and Preacher Sex

Posted June 8, 2018 12:37 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The theater company Clubbed Thumb says its mission is to develop and produce “funny, strange and provocative new plays by living American writers.”

Mission accomplished: “Wilder Gone,” the second of three productions in Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival this year, is a funny, strange and provocative new play by Angela Hanks, a living — and promising — young playwright from Dallas.

“Wilder Gone” is also from Dallas, which is to say from its history. Set in 1921, mostly on a contested piece of property on Wilder Street in a black neighborhood still arising from uncultivated farmland, it concerns a biracial woman named Thalia (Toni Ann DeNoble) who has come with her frustrated boyfriend, Streeter (Hubert Point-Du Jour), to build a “nice quaint” house after losing her ancestral home near Houston.

But describing “Wilder Gone” this way is like describing a watercolor by the metals and dyes that compose it chemically. Yes, Hanks has serious business in mind: Thalia, protective of her light-skinned privilege, resists marrying Streeter, who is darker. And her nearest new neighbor, an aspiring preacher named Mabel (Crystal Dickinson), resents Thalia’s claim on property she has long intended as the site of a grand, if hand-sewn, revival tent.

Then there are the mysteriously hunky preacher, John Jack; the madame and part-time mystic, Dotte; the industrious newsboy, Oliver Oak, who is also a clerk at the five-and-dime and — sure, why not? — the local baker; and Peanut Brittle, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in a boardinghouse and is Mabel’s only congregant.

They each have serious — even, as promised, provocative — issues pushing them through the plot, which is basically framed as the competition between soil and spirit: building a house and building faith. Notably, four of the seven characters have lost one or both of their parents, making the search for some kind of stability resonate. And though no white people interlope to overstate the point, racism, internalized or otherwise, hums in the background.

“Do you feel all right in the world?” Thalia asks Streeter. She means as a black man, and from her own experience, even as someone who can pass, she doubts it.

But as the name Peanut Brittle suggests — and as the blue-sky and bricolage set by Reid Thompson confirms — the top notes here are “funny” and “strange.” Director Margot Bordelon draws out everything zany from the story’s incongruous juxtapositions while maintaining a fleet pace, and has cast the play with actors who straddle the “provocative” line gracefully.

Mabel’s susceptibility to the pleasures of the flesh, and the ungodly eagerness of John Jack (Washington Kirk) to accommodate her, are somehow both coy and sexy while also giving the lie to stereotypes about people of faith and people of 1921. Likewise, Markita Prescott and Christopher Livingston, as Peanut Brittle and Oliver Oak, apply inventive comic veneers to characters built on loss.

A sign that the funny and strange are staying within bounds is that the less outré moments do not seem out of place. The scenes between Thalia and Streeter, building their house while wrangling over their future, might almost come from a much more serious play, so frankly are they rendered. And the quiet moment in which Dotte (Nicole Lewis) reads Mabel’s fate in tarot cards is an acting class in naturalism. You could wish it went on much longer.

Still, fitting all this into 90 minutes makes for a perfect summer show, a trick Clubbed Thumb seems to have mastered. Earlier productions, including “Tin Cat Shoes” in May and, in previous seasons, “Men on Boats” and “Of Government,” hit all the right notes; and the Summerworks home at the Wild Project in the East Village, with its garage-door entry open to the street, makes seeing the plays seem like a friendly invitation instead of a cultural duty. The price — seats are $25, or $20 for students — helps with that as well.

So you may want to check out the last of this year’s Summerworks productions, “Plano” by Will Arbery, which runs June 20 through 30.

But I don’t mean to suggest that plays like these are mere fair-weather friends. Despite its bright cheer and generally happy ending — not to mention the rat-a-tat of laughter throughout — “Wilder Gone” really does fulfill the “provocative” part of Clubbed Thumb’s mission, insofar as hopefulness may now feel provocative. It’s hard not to be moved, and challenged, when Streeter, answering Thalia’s question, says yes, despite everything lined up against a poor black man in Texas in 1921, “I have felt all right in this world.”

Summer or not, it’s a start.

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Production Notes:

“Wilder Gone”

Through June 14 at The Wild Project, Manhattan; 212-260-0153, clubbedthumb.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Credits: By Angela Hanks; directed by Margot Bordelon; sets by Reid Thompson; costumes by Beth Goldenberg; lighting by Marie Yokoyama; sound by Kate Marvin; production stage manager, Rick V. Moreno. Presented by Clubbed Thumb.

Cast: Toni Ann DeNoble (Thalia), Hubert Point-Du Jour (Streeter), Crystal Dickinson (Mabel), Markita Prescott (Peanut Brittle), Christopher Livingston (Oliver Oak), Washington Kirk (John Jack) and Nicole Lewis (Dotte).