In “The Siblings Play,” a teenage girl and her two brothers are left to raise one another in a Harlem apartment where the rent is past due, after first their father and then their mother abandoned them. But the story is more complicated than that. We discover an essential truth about this family as the play unfolds and in flashbacks: All members of the family abandon one another in one way or another, not just the parents, but in all cases the abandonment is only temporary; the love is permanent.
In a way “The Siblings Play” itself had been abandoned – temporarily. Beginning previews at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on March 3, and scheduled for an official opening on March 18, it shut down after the performance on March 14 — as has every other play in New York on order the authorities to curb the spread of the pandemic.
But that last performance was recorded – and is being offered online through April 5th to patrons who purchased tickets to the canceled performances, as well as to new viewers for $15 a ticket.
I was invited to watch it online to review. I suspect this worked better live. Understandably, the camerawork doesn’t rise to the level of the stage-to-screen recordings we’ve gotten used to on platforms like Netflix. A clue as to why the theater went to the trouble of offering it online seems embedded in the playwright’s note in the (virtual) program, which reads like a poem.
“The story we’re sharing here today is about survivors, not victims,” Ren Dara Santiago writes. “I wrote this play to heal heroes. And heal myself, and each of you.”
“The Siblings Play,” which marks playwright Santiago’s professional debut, is heartfelt and well-intentioned. The production is first-rate, with the five-member cast giving some fine performances. And, not incidentally, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which over the past quarter century has offered much splendid theater, deserves the support during this perilous time. Yet, though others will surely respond more enthusiastically to the message of healing, my problems with the play were not limited to the sudden change of medium. I more admire the effort than fully embrace the results.
And much is admirable. The language of “The Siblings Play” has the authentic-sounding rhythms of the streets of Harlem circa 2010, and the issues with which they grapple are certainly widespread. The characters are each vividly etched. Mateo Ferro stands out as Butchie, aka Marian and Mars, who has the most on the ball – at 13 years old, he has learned computer coding on his own, he’s an exemplary tennis player; he’s the hope of the family. But he’s also the baby of the family, and his siblings baby him, and worry about him, which he resents. There are riveting moments as well between the two other siblings, Cindy De La Cruz as Marie/Rie-rie/Sweet-pea, often anxious at best, and Ed Ventura as Leon/Lee/Chookie, who is wracked with guilt and guilty secrets. That they each are given several names is the playwright’s clever hint that each is struggling with their manifold and sometimes conflicting identities, trying to grow up, trying to navigate between their roles as children, siblings, breadwinners and protectors. It’s telling that they keep on telling their parents not to call them by their childhood nicknames.
Since much of the point of the play is to emphasize how responsible the children must be to take care of themselves, Dalia Davi as Lenora and Andy Lucien as Logan have the more challenging roles as the irresponsible parents. It’s a credit to both the writing and the acting that they don’t come off as monsters, but as people grappling with their own demons. Andy Jean’s costume for Davi – a bright red dress with too much bodice showing –gets right at her character.
While I was watching “The Siblings Play,” it occurred to me that its subject was similar to Bess Wohl’s play last year, Make Believe – siblings who have to fend for themselves, because of parental neglect. Where “Make Believe” was elliptical, however, “The Siblings Play” is akin to blunt-force trauma. The characters spend much time yelling at one another, which of course families do, but it’s tedious enough when it’s your own.
I’m not sure whether “The Siblings Play” precisely fits the 1950s genre of kitchen sink drama, but there is a familiarity to the pile-up of contemporary family problems that, perhaps paradoxically, often makes the play feel awkward and old-fashioned.
“The Siblings Play” is partially redeemed by its performers, even though we no longer get to see them in the flesh and the glory of live theater. They will appear, though, in live (albeit remote) post-show conversations. (See below.)
The Siblings Play
Written by Ren Dara Santiago
Directed by Jenna Worsham
Scenic design by Angelica Borrero, costume design by Andy Jean, lighting design by Zach Blane, sound design by Michael Costagliola
Cast: Dalia Davi as Lenora, Cindy De La Cruz as Marie, Mateo Ferro as Butchie, Andy Lucien as Logan, and Ed Ventura as Leon.
Running time: About two hours
“The Sibling Play” is online here, through April 5
There will be post-show live conversations on selected dates via Zoom.
March 26 at 5pm – A Conversation with Director Jenna Worsham and cast members on how this play speaks to their own personal experiences.
March 31 at 3pm – A Conversation with David Kener and Monica Caballero from Counseling-in-the-Schools with Playwright Ren Dara Santiago.
April 2nd at 5pm – A Conversation with Robert Pollock from PEN America and Josie Whittlesey from Drama Club with Playwright Ren Dara Santiago