Brontë England-Nelson, Ashley Bryant, Dria Brown and Chalia La Tour in CADILLAC CREW by Tori Sampson, directed by Jesse Rasmussen and Tori Sampson, Yale Repertory Theatre, 2019. Photo by Joan Marcus.

“Cadillac Crew”

Yale Repertory Theatre


Yale Repertory Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere play, “Cadillac Crew,” Tori Sampson’s incendiary yet overstuffed new work.  Featuring a cast of four women, this play focuses on a part of civil rights history that, according to the notes in the program, has never been unearthed before: namely groups of white women and African American women together in the 1960s trying to desegregate the South through road trips that were referred to as “Cadillac crews.”

The playwright does extremely well at capturing the time and place of the early 1960s and she is adept at both sassy comedy and heart-pounding drama.  Still, “Cadillac Crew” ultimately becomes just too much—in trying to cover so much territory (including jumping decades forward at the conclusion), the playwright ends up diffusing some of the power that is inherent in the show.

Still, this problem is far from fatal.  Director Jesse Rasmussen has done a wonderful job staging this show and has managed to elicit expert performances from the four actresses in the cast.  The production itself looks good, with one of the finest uses of projection design that I have ever seen.  As mentioned, Tori Sampson seems to include just about every possible subject and idea in her play, making the show go from entertaining to powerful to simply exhausting.  “Cadillac Crew,” at Yale Repertory Theatre, could use some scaling back and excising parts of the show’s material, for there is clearly a potent and important play onstage, and it just needs help to fully emerge.

Getting to what works so well in “Cadillac Crew,” one only needs to look at the performances at the center of the play.  The initial scenes take place in a civil rights office in Virginia in the early 1960s.  Chalia La Tour, as the character of Rachel, is clearly the one who runs the office and there is much talk of her trying to get Rosa Parks to speak at a rally she has coordinated.  La Tour excels in this role and she brings a great deal of authority and courage to the part, as well as expert comic timing.  Dria Brown shines as Abby, who works at the office under Rachel, with the fine Ashley Bryant also figuring into the plot, as the defiant Dee.  Finally, Bronte England-Nelson does well as Sarah, the one Caucasian woman in the group.

The opening scene in the office is filled with some laugh-out-loud moments, displaying the sterling wit and sense of humor that the playwright brings to her play.  Indeed, without giving too much away, it is only near the end of the first act that the real trouble begins for the civil rights these women are fighting for and “Cadillac Crew” can turn on a dime from being riotously funny to deeply and tragically disturbing.  Suffice it is to say that the characters form their own “Cadillac crew,” in utter defiance to what is going on in the world.

Still, with plenty of surprises in this play, I am loath to reveal anything more of the plot.  Unfortunately, by the time “Cadillac Crew” gets into the real drama of the second half, it begins apparent that the playwright has simply loaded too much onto her plate.  The director and the skillful cast do their best at keeping the show vital, even as the play becomes utterly overwhelming in its scope.

Also aiding “Cadillac Crew” are the imaginative work of the designers.  Scenic designer Jessie Chen does a good job at keeping the set as authentic to the period as possible, which goes double for costume designer Matthew R. Malone, whose costumes manage to be both attractive and completely appropriate.  Lighting designer Kathy A. Perkins does a wonderful job, and works in tandem with Rasean Davonte Johnson, whose projections are simply outstanding.

“Cadillac Crew,” at Yale Repertory Theatre, is clearly a new play with a great deal of potential, as well as distinct assets, many of which are already apparent onstage.  Still, being a world premiere play, this show really needs some additional work to fulfill the aims of the playwright, who brings a fresh voice to the theatre.  One hopes that the additional effort is used wisely and effectively for, even as “Cadillac Crew” is in its present incarnation, it is quite unlike any other play in its ambitions, especially in peeling back a part of history which clearly needs to be exposed.

“Cadillac Crew” continues performance at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT through May 18, 2019.  For tickets, please visit www.yalerep.org or call the box office at 203-432-1234.

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