At Fourth Street Theatre, Gabriel Jason Dean’s Terminus tells a powerful story of generational racial tensions through the lens of a deeply troubled family.
The month-long run of Terminus’ second production was hosted at the official space for Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop located in the heart of the East Village. In the townhouse-turned 65-seat black box theatre, an industrial interior and a blaring 90s rock playlist creates an eccentric mood. The play is set in rural Georgia in 1994, only 27 years after Loving v. Commonwealth repealed anti-miscegenation laws in the Deep South. Jaybo Freeman (Reynaldo Piniella), a biracial college dropout who makes a meager wage working at the local steakhouse, is the primary caregiver of his demented grandmother Eller (Obie and Drama Desk Award winner Deirdre O’Connell). Eller suffers from haunting hallucinations of her deceased family members, whom she tapes pictures of on her living room wall to remember each morning. Though Jaybo is devoted to his loving grandmother, his knowledge of her past is marginal. He knows that she fell in love with a black veteran and married him before it was constitutional to do so. He knows that they raised a beautiful daughter, his mother, who committed tragic suicide at a young age. He knows that Eller had raised him for almost 20 years, ever since his no-good daddy abandoned them, and for that, he owes her his life.
“But people aren’t the things you know,” Eller cries in the opening scene, “people are the things you don’t know.”
Throughout Eller’s journey of confronting her dark past, we witness her weeping, shouting, and singing as she dwindles between reality and flashbacks. The ghosts of her family sing a gospel’s refrain, “come and join us at the cotton/all your sins will be forgotten”, hinting at the lurking shadow of their racist past. Their story unravels like a painstakingly tangled thread as Eller recalls her earliest memories of her father, a man who oversaw and scorned black laborers by a railroad. Before going off to war, he gave Eller a tiny nail to be flattened into a cross. The story ridden with biblical symbols comes to a halt as Eller almost jumps in front of a train while hallucinating. She is rescued by Finch (Vanessa R. Butler), a young black girl from West Philly. To escape her sexually abusive father, Finch had left home to backpack around, or as she playfully calls it, to become a “hobo”. Eller shows Finch the gold-leafed bible she gifted her husband on the night they first embraced, recalling fondly their epic love. Intrigued, Finch invites Jaybo to catch the next train to Atlanta with her. Perhaps for the first time, Jaybo confronts the opportunity to leave his stranded life. The play progresses into climax when Eller confesses that the iron cross she held so close to her heart also helped her commit the most terrible, racially-motivated act of her lifetime. Jaybo, stunned and disgusted by the story, leaves with Finch. Finally unburdened by the truth, Eller ascends to the afterlife with the ghost of her husband. They embrace, concluding the play with the striking image of a loving interracial couple with the deepest, darkest secrets of their times.
The partly-autobiographical Terminus examines an underlooked quagmire in America’s racial history by, as Gabriel Jason Dean states in the play’s program, “reckoning with the truth”. Dean’s diverse cast offer rich perspectives of humanity in all their complexities as they struggle with their moral dilemmas and paradoxical beliefs. While one may be entirely transported to small town, Georgia by the believable performance of Deirdre O’Connor and company, Terminus further asserts itself into present-day America where “white guilt” and white supremacy are equally prevailing phenomenon, where mixed-race children carrying the blood of their ancestors’ slave owners still reckon with the trauma behind their identities, where lawmakers refuse to admit that racial inequality stemming from Jim Crow laws continue to affect black communities, and where an increasingly divided nation has justified systematic violence against hundreds of black youth.
Lucie Tiberghien’s intimate direction offers a refreshingly humanistic rendition of the intensely political play. Tiberghien does not shy away from depicting violence and abuse but balances tension-filled scenes well with tender, raw moments of familial bliss. As the plot progresses, the audience begins to empathize with each flawed, troubled character and become increasingly intrigued by the histories behind them. Eller’s recurring psychological episodes stand out from the otherwise realist play with bursts of sound and loaded imagery, reflecting the character’s increasingly heightened trauma. Monk Parrots’ production is immediately grabbing and works its way through one’s body like a drug, drawing the audience closer with each revelation and unexpected turn and propelling them to confront their own judgment of the story. Perhaps the most saddening element of Terminus is its timelessness, its ability to convey a truthful albeit ugly narrative that’s transcended generations.
Terminus has concluded its run at Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop. Follow production company Monk Parrots and NYTW for future shows and events.