It's usually a good thing when a script reflects the current moment in a culture. But as director Vivienne Benesch, songwriter Laurelyn Dossett, and playwright Mike Wiley can now tell you, it can be positively unnerving when a new play gets a little ahead of its time, anticipating events before they happen.
The creative team behind Leaving Eden, a new music theater work premiering this week at PlayMakers Repertory Company, encountered that uncanny situation several times while working on Wiley and Dossett's drama about racial and ethnic tensions in the small-town South.
Last week, the INDY's cover story on Latinx families being uprooted from their homes in Siler City made Benesch say "not again," thinking of a similar element in the plot. There's also a stirring scene in which white vigilantes gather by torchlight to menace their black neighbors—a scene Wiley added three months before alt-righters carried torches through the streets of Charlottesville.
Wiley is reconciled to the eerie real-world parallels that have accompanied his latest creation. After all, similar parallels compelled him to tell this story to begin with: the haunting similarities between our present sociopolitical moment and several in our past.
Leaving Eden "isn't just a work about where we are now," Wiley says. "It's a reflection of where we've been, and possibly where we're going."
In the script, less than two weeks remain before elections in the small eastern river town of Marah, North Carolina. On the ballot is an ordinance that would make it illegal to rent to or hire undocumented aliens. The measure is being pushed by Roy White, a hometown football hero and used-car dealer who's become the mayoral candidate of the tea-party set.
When a Trump campaign commercial plays on the radio, White tells current mayor David Bigsby, "That's a fast movin' train, and you and me are on it. And the folks that ain't are gonna get knocked on their asses."
We soon learn it's not the first time Marah has faced a racial impasse. As an enigmatic griot, Selah, unfolds the plot in narrative and song, we witness a series of events in 1933 that ultimately define Marah as a "sunset town," a place where African Americans are neither welcome nor safe after dark. In both eras, a town built by freed slaves is dominated by a white-owned business: a textile mill in the 1930s and a meat-processing plant today. As the scenes shift between the two eras, the contrasts and similarities become more striking.
After a series of interviews with former textile workers in Siler City and conversations with his neighbor, the author and activist Paul Cuadros, Wiley realized that "what we were doing was cyclical. Communities, not just in North Carolina, trying to banish a Latinx population with demonstrations, ordinances, or the idea of a wall were just repeating past mistakes."
"America is doing to the Latinx population what it did to black folks in the late-1800s and the 1920s and '30s," Wiley goes on. "They are an unprotected population in the same sense that African Americans were unprotected in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries."
Dossett, who has written songs for the Carolina Chocolate Drops and wrote the 2012 protest song "Vote Against Amendment One," notes that, while Wiley has written a contemporary play, the story of a people forced to move to find a home for their family is ancient.
"There's only one story in the world, and we keep telling it," she says.