Somewhere in Oklahoma, sometime in the near future, a young Black woman named Rory (Aishé Keita) sits in a red clay cellar, warily eyeing a newfangled contraption.
“So you’re just going to pour my blood in the machine?” she asks Pramesh (Bharan Bikshaandeswaran), a bored-looking functionary for some obscure state agency called The Commission. Sort of, he explains. Just a drop will do, enough to retrieve the generations-old “blood memories” she carries around in her DNA.
Moments later, Rory is tumbled back to June 18, 1922, the day a lynch mob — led by the local sheriff — burned the family farm and murdered her great-great-grandparents while their children (Rory’s great-grandfather and his siblings) hid in that same red clay cellar.
A few terrifying minutes later, she’s zapped back to the present, panting with fear. “So,” Rory asks Pramesh once she’s caught her breath. “How much money are we lookin’ at?”
Debates about reparations — Germany atoning for the Holocaust, the U.S. trying to financially reckon with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow — tend to begin with two knotty questions: Are descendants of state-inflicted mass trauma owed anything? And if so, how do we prove who’s suffered what?
With a dash of science fiction, “Reparations” — Darren Canady’s thought experiment of a play at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute — neatly severs those two knots in its first scene. Harnessing the new blood-memory technology, The Commission is sending people of color back into their ancestors’ lives, documenting injustices and atrocities, then using algorithms to determine the appropriate payout.
Those puzzles solved, Canady is free to explore the next, even knottier questions: How do we price suffering? Can reparations exorcise the past? And what if history is slightly more complicated than a simple binary of victims and victimizers?
Rory just wants what she’s owed, but her grandmother Billie Mae (Tracy Michelle Hughes) and skeptical, coolheaded cousin Maceo (Brandon Jones Mooney) aren’t sure poking around in family history is the best idea.
“You were always doin’ that with scabs, just pickin’, pickin’, pickin’,” Billie Mae scolds. “Nothin’ but fresh blood underneath.”
Some of that buried blood comes from wounds Rory and Maceo don’t know anything about — yet. But the blood-memory technology has an addictive quality, and Rory keeps diving into the past, dragging Maceo and Billie Mae along for the ride. It probably comes as no surprise that The Commission finds a way to dodge paying for that day in 1922 (as Billie Mae predicts: “You fool enough to think these white folks gonna give you some money!”), but “Reparations” has other unpleasant revelations for the cousins.
The evocative set, designed by Lex Marcos, divides the stage into three parts that look like the past, future and present: earthy cellar to the left; Pramesh’s sterile, space-age-looking Commission office to the right; and in the center, on a raised platform, is Billie Mae’s kitchen. As in real life, the present is most vivid and rich, cluttered with its coffee cans, brooms, pots, pans, spice racks, knitting paraphernalia, towels and so on.
The usually excellent director Jay O’Leary (“B,” “Citizen: An American Lyric“) coaxes mixed performances out of her cast. Keita, as Rory, lives in a near-constant state of distress, moving from worry to worry: The Commission, feeling stuck in small-town Oklahoma, her role as Billie Mae’s caretaker, her sometimes-tense relationship with Maceo. It seems exhausting for actor and audience, and we savor the few moments Rory gets to hit a different emotional note, as when she daydreams of escaping to a big city and holding audiences rapt as a beloved performer.
Hughes is a delight as the cantankerous Billie Mae, who lives with her own worries but keeps them beneath the surface, allowing us to glimpse them occasionally, like fish, before they flicker back down to the depths. (Plus, she gave laugh lines a punch that the opening-night audience loved: “Swear to God, if you let my peaches scorch I’ma bake your behind right into this cobbler.”)
“Reparations” doesn’t pretend to answer the thorny questions it raises, beyond an affirmation that whatever damage lies in the past, we owe our love to the present. But sometimes asking, not answering, is the key.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his landmark 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations“: “I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”
“Reparations” by Darren Canady. Through Feb. 2; Sound Theatre Company and LANGSTON at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. S., Seattle; $5-$75 (sliding scale); soundtheatrecompany.org