Maybe it was the kitchen set, embodying the warmth and togetherness of family. Or maybe it was Creative Cauldron’s warm, receptive, responsive opening night audience. Or it was Iyona Blake’s (playwright and director) love for the characters she creates in Girls of Madison Street. Whatever the reason, I’ve never felt as at home in a theater as I did while watching the action of this world premiere play out on a sunny yellow stage.
Girls of Madison Street is the family-centric story of the interconnected lives of four Black sisters: Nadine, Ingrid, Kimberly, and Leah. Opening in Ingrid’s home after their mother’s funeral, the play goes on to show how the siblings navigate their lives — victories and hardships alike — without their mother but with each other. While the plot itself does not shy away from those hardships — tackling themes of addiction, cancer, sexual assault, financial trouble, and infidelity — it always comes back to faith and family with empathy and pride.
Blake crafts her characters with love, creating a warm, blunt, caring, sometimes chaotic dynamic between sisters that pulls the audience in with its honest characterization of family and home. The relationships between her characters feel so real and natural that even when there are more serious matters at hand, the ordinary, everyday moments catch the heart and the eye. By juxtaposing the more serious conditions of the play with the small comforts of home and family, Blake creates a play that feels both dramatic and real, as it welcomes the humor, growth, or solace loved ones can often lend to the most challenging situations. Her writing truly excels in these moments, as she builds a foundation of sisterhood that comforts the sisters’ sorrows and revels in their triumphs.
Adding to this outstanding dynamic are actors Andrea Gerald (Nadine), Cameron Dashiell (Ingrid), Corisa Myers (Kimberly), and Ayana Ogunsunlade (Leah), the titular girls of Madison Street and the heart of this play. Ogunsunlade is artistic and full of life, imbuing all of her lines with compassion and energy. Dashiell’s Ingrid is the glue that holds the family together, warm and nurturing, but also tenacious, aware of what she deserves. Myers as Kimberly is always sharp onstage and does an excellent job of alternating between holding it together in front of her family and breaking when she’s alone. Gerald does wonderful work with Nadine, showing her initial coldness, but also the cracks in her armor that turn into beautiful and believable growth.
Individually, each actor creates a dynamic individual with so much bubbling beneath the surface, but they are simply remarkable as an ensemble cast. Working together, they are powerful and moving, so natural and at ease in their exchanges that the plot becomes secondary to their electric chemistry as a unit. Blake wisely lets them play off of each other as the story unfolds, and they make the most of every moment in three-word reactions, facial expressions, and even movement onstage, navigating each other in ways only people who’ve grown up together can.
Adding even more to their chemistry are fellow actors DeCarlo Jarrell Raspberry (Jeremy, Ingrid’s husband), Russell Rinker (Andrew Barrett), and Jen Drake (Emma), all perfectly cast in their roles as players in the sisters’ lives. Raspberry’s comedic timing is particularly fantastic, but all add to the action whenever onstage.
The cozy set (Margie Jervis, Andy Reilly) also emphasizes the centrality of family to this play, consisting of simple details that always bring the audience into the fold with the characters. The coffee pot is always full, dishes abound, and tablecloths change with new days and new events, letting us return to the stability Ingrid’s house provides to sisters and audience alike. Lighting and sound (Venus Gulbranson, Greg Watkins) complement the action and feelings onstage, and the addition of music is stunningly poignant, bringing us into the intimate moments of this family.
All aspects of production conjure that feeling of home, not just for the central four characters but also for the audience. In doing so, the play has the beautiful effect of inviting everyone in the room to join in the celebration of Black womanhood that feels so vital to the show. At the end of the day, Girls of Madison Street feels like an outpouring of love, dedicated to belonging and connection among Black women, starting with the community of the show itself, in its cast, production team, even the loving mentions of Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. Blake extends that love beyond the stage, including a beautifully curated showcase of art by women of color in the lobby, and giving the audience a chance to witness that community. She gives us the opportunity to see, to feel seen, to embrace, to uplift, and rejoice in family, faith, and Black female belonging.
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Girls of Madison Street plays through March 6, 2022 (Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm), at Creative Cauldron – 410 South Maple Avenue, Retail 116, Falls Church, VA. Tickets ($35) are available online.
COVID Safety: All patrons must wear masks. Social distancing between parties and proof of vaccination or negative COVID test within 24 hours of the performance is required for everyone age 5 and over. Creative Cauldron’s complete COVID-19 Protocols are here.
The Girls of Madison Street program is online here.
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