Although she's got a significant acting career, Regina Taylor is probably best known by now as a playwright, and particularly as the author of Crowns, a musical based on Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's book about African-American women and their sometimes fantastical church hats. Taylor's new evening-length trilogy—the Trinity River Plays, now receiving their midwest premiere at the Goodman Theatre—reminds me of Crowns. Not because of any properties they have in common, though there must be plenty. The connection for me is the hats. Sometimes for better but often for worse, the Trinity River Plays—Jar Fly, Rain, and Ghoststory—are as elaborate, flighty, expressive, surreal, and contrived as a good church lady's Sunday crown.
The Trinity River Plays follow a Dallas-born black girl, Iris, from her 17th birthday in 1978 (Jar Fly) to her double-17th—or 34th—year in 1995 (Rain), and then take a short temporal hop beyond that (Ghoststory). Precocious and sweetly goofy when we first meet her, with enormous glasses, cornrows, and a formidable writing jones, Iris is the only daughter of single mother Rose. We don't meet Rose right away, though, because she's off bettering herself so she can earn more money and send Iris to a good college. In Rose's absence, Iris is being looked after by her earthy Aunt Daisy, Daisy's wild daughter Jasmine, and step-uncle Ray Earl. Well, "looked after" isn't really the right term. A truly terrible thing happens. When we see Iris again at 34, back in Dallas for Rose's birthday, she's very successful—a globe-trotting writer and editor with six books to her credit—but still deeply traumatized.
By then Rose has got troubles, too. She's dying of ovarian cancer. Rain and Ghoststory are partly about Iris's attempts to reach rapprochement—first, with her icy, formidable mother and then with her mother's very active spirit.
But only partly. The final two plays of the trilogy come across as a kind of narrative church hat—a riot of motifs, metaphors, conceits, subtexts, and story lines, all vying for attention. Jasmine has become a lush and a parasite, wheedling 50s out of the relatives. Daisy has some ugly facts to confront. Iris's cheating ex-husband Frank shows up, and so does her old crush, Jack, a former pro basketball player; the two men get into a jealous competition that culminates—in the single most ridiculous passage in the trilogy—with a middle-aged-guy fight. There are ongoing images involving 17-year cicadas, thunderstorms, and a big old pecan tree, not to mention a whole allegory having to do with gardening—none of which quite comes to fruition. Costume designer Karen Perry has some intriguing but inscrutable stuff going on with Iris's changes of clothes. Iris herself has the terrible thing to deal with, of course. And hovering over all of it is Rose, whose ghost seems to have mastered aikido: she keeps flipping Iris.
Actually, the flips are quite beautiful. So is Todd Rosenthal's set, which allows Karen Aldridge's Iris and Penny Johnson Jerald's Rose to dig in real dirt. And the cast is phenomenal, particularly Christiana Clark as Jasmine and Jacqueline Williams, who adds to a long list of supporting-role triumphs as Daisy. But Taylor never makes sense of the material she puts before us, least of all Rose, whose dominance in the narrative is never justified. The trilogy as a whole is overstuffed and unbalanced. As matters stand now, if it were a church hat it would fall off.