Cygnet’s ‘Mud Row’ a taut and moving story of a family mired in the past

Marti Gobel and Rachel Cognata in Cygnet Theatre's "Mud Row."
(Karli Cadel)

Dominique Morisseau’s 2019 play, making its Southern California premiere at Old Town theater, features haunting and poetic staging by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg


There are six actors in Cygnet Theatre’s new production of Dominique Morisseau’s “Mud Row,” but there’s another star onstage — the crumbling and abandoned Massachusetts home that the Jeter family has lived in for generations.

Swirls of brown mud cake the lower walls of the home and tree roots infest the foundation of Brian Redfern’s evocative and foreboding set. The roots are the family’s twisty history and the mud represents how its members can’t get unstuck from the pain and secrets of their past.

Morisseau’s well-written, mystery-filled play travels back and forth through time between the 1960s and 2018, when two generations of Jeters try, fail and try again to live the family credo of “love, fight and togetherness.” At times, the Jeter women from different decades occupy the stage at the same time and they speak in prophetic verses to the audience. That can’t be easy to direct, but Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s staging is haunting and poetic.

Joy Yvonne Jones, left, and Andrea Agosto in Cygnet Theatre's "Mud Row."
(Karli Cadel)

The play takes place in Mud Row, a once-thriving Black community in the east end of West Chester, Pa. As the story begins, 1960s-era sisters Elsie and Frances are living in the home purchased by their late mother with her earnings as a prostitute. Elsie, played with dreamy-eyed hopefulness by Andréa Agosto, is a hard-working, well-dressed striver who plans to marry a wealthy college boy and escape Mud Row and the shame of her family’s past. Her sister Frances, played with clear-eyed minimalism by Joy Yvonne Jones, is a no-nonsense civil rights activist willing to risk her life to end segregation. Despite their differences, the sisters share a loving bond.

The play frequently flashes forward to 2018, when middle-aged professional Regine and her affable husband, Davin, arrive in the now-abandoned home. Regine has inherited the house from her grandmother, but the building holds only painful memories, so she wants to capitalize on the rising home prices in the fast-gentrifying community. But quickly they discover a pair of squatters who have been living in the house for three months: Toshi, a former drug addict and identity thief, and her baseball bat-toting boyfriend, Tyriek. For them, the house is a fresh start, and they’re willing to fight, and even die, for it.

The play’s most powerful moments are between Regine and Toshi, played with equally ferocity and authenticity by Marti Gobel and Rachel Cognata, respectively. When they go toe to toe, it’s absolutely electric to watch. By contrast, Rondrell McCormick’s Davin is a gentle and steadying influence, who tries to help his wife face the demons of her past. And Leo Ebanks offers comic relief as Tyriek, who isn’t nearly as hardened as his tough-as-nails girlfriend.

Kandace Crystal served as assistant director on the production, which features lighting by Caroline Andrew, sound by Melanie Chen Cole and costumes by Regan A. McKay.

To say more about the play, its plot and its characters would spoil the play’s many twists and surprises, but this fast-paced, two-hour drama is an entertaining and heart-touching story with universal themes that most families can relate to.

‘Mud Row’

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 19

Where: Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town San Diego

Tickets: $30 and up

Phone: (619) 337-1525