When Nicole Ari Parker was in rehearsals for Off-Broadway’s The Refuge Plays, she did something that’s typical: she called her mom. But the conversation they had was very atypical: Parker wanted to know how to kill and clean a turkey. “She broke it all the way down about how to get the feathers off. And make sure you don't hit the gallbladder when you’re cutting it. Because the meat will get sour, it'll be too bitter,” she tells Playbill.
That’s because in The Refuge Plays, Parker is playing someone who is a far cry from the glamorous filmmaker she plays in And Just Like That..., the Sex and the City sequel series on Max. Her character is named Early, a woman who lives in the woods in Illinois, who chops her own firewood, kills her own turkey, and isn’t fazed when she gets dirty.
“I'm lucky enough to have parents born in the 40s. I had a grandmother who still used a washboard, great aunts that still went fishing in the North Carolina mountains,” says Parker. “I had this pride in knowing those things, and I'm ingesting them in my soul and giving honor to my ancestors in that part of my life and their world.”
The best way to describe The Refuge Plays by Nathan Alan Davis is that it's epic. The play, currently running until November 12 Off-Broadway at Roundabout Theatre Company (in a coproduction with New York Theatre Workshop), clocks in at three and a half hours, including two intermissions. This ambitious work is told in three acts, spanning 70 years in the life of a Black family: How Early and her husband Eddie built a house in the woods and how over time, it becomes a refuge for their family. Or as Parker describes it, “It's about this family, and what they do to survive and to love and to hold on to each other.” Parker's last stage credit was the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.
The Refuge Plays is a world premiere production. That means that in rehearsals, the cast was constantly receiving new pages of text or rewritten pages, or being told some scenes were being cut. It was such a strenuous process that Parker, who is on stage the longest, even tore a calf muscle in her leg during rehearsal, which meant the show had to push back its opening night. Though speaking to her Monday on her day off, Parker was nothing but positive, saying, “I just came back from physical therapy this morning. I'm healed, I'm reusing my leg again. They had to rebuild some lifting dynamics in my work boots for Early but I’m good to go.”
That dedication is common among the play’s 10-member ensemble cast. Parker’s colleague Jessica Frances Dukes has been part of the play for eight years, helping develop it through its various workshops. “I fell in love with it immediately,” she remarks, adding that the characters made her think of her grandparents. Her grandfather grew up on a farm in Kentucky, and every night on stage, she uses her grandmother’s Midwestern accent for her character Gail. “I come from these people. And I use them every night on that stage. Even before I go on stage, I ask them to, you know, come on stage with me and share this story.”
The Refuge Plays straddles different tones and genres: there’s ghosts who interact with the living, and references to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Moses. The language is lyrical and filled with imagery, such as when Early’s grandson asks her how to make tea that is not bitter and “sharp,” and she responds with, “It’s real simple: Don’t pour it sharp, don’t stir it sharp, don’t be thinkin' daggers into me while you put the honey in.” The play weaves between magical realism and naturalism.
A number of the cast members also play the same characters at different ages in their lives. Parker plays Early as a young woman up to her elderly years as a great grandmother. Similarly, Dukes (who was on Broadway last year in Trouble in Mind) is also in old-age makeup; she plays Gail, who marries into Early’s family, and the audience sees both the senior and younger versions of her.
Before every show, Parker and Dukes apply their old-age make-up together, and it’s allowed them to create a bond that extends to their onstage characters. “We both get in there early and we're putting our lines on and literally drawing in our age on our face and our hands,” says Dukes.
Then Parker chimes in, “There’s a reverence there too. Women, we're not allowed to age and everybody's freaking out if you have a smile line, or whatever. But there's so much love and reverence in this transformation for both of us.”
That’s because when these actors are on that stage, they see their family members in each other. “Nicole looks like my mother's side of the family,” Dukes says, visibly choking up. “And so there's a moment when Symphony [played by Mallori Taylor Johnson] hugs her every night. My mother took care of my grandfather, so [Nicole] looks like my grandfather did in his last days…we get to see so much in each other.”
So for these two actors, The Refuge Plays has been a challenge and a journey. But hearing them speak so enthusiastically and movingly about the piece, it’s clear that they are both, in Parker’s words, “team Refuge Plays.”
“It's a gift that we get to give every night,” says Dukes passionately, with Parker nodding in agreement. “I remind myself there are hundreds of people out there every night—not even knowing they're about to be healed, that they're about to be consoled, that they're about to be held, that they're about to be accepted. People are going to leave and they're going to call home, they're going to forgive. There's so many things that show does for people. And that's what keeps me going every night.”