The economic and social plight of America’s white rural working class has been the subject of recent blockbuster books from J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to Educated, by Tara Westover. Now this disheartened population has become the focus of DC-area playwright Brandon McCoy, a native of West Virginia, who looks homeward in his new and well-intentioned West By God. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore, this timely work is receiving its world premiere production at The Keegan Theatre.
The story unfolds in brief snippets as the actors navigate Matthew J. Keenan’s interesting set composed of rough barn boards that together take the shape of West Virginia itself. An aging sofa – the family ‘hearth’ – dominates center stage facing an unseen television set. Sophia (Rena Cherry Brown) reigns from here – forever absorbed in her beloved and bedeviled Cincinnati Reds. She routinely chastises her kids with a tersely spoken “Language!” every time they curse, but avoids difficult conversations. “Not now,” she utters, often disappearing back into her televised baseball games.
Around the struggles of Sophia and her children, two other dramas play out. Robert’s (Kevin Hasser) new acquaintance Reginald (DeJeanette Horne), a North Carolinian now also living in the DC area, genially prods Robert to think about the elements of his identity. West Virginia neighbor Agnes (Sheri S. Herren) is terrified at the idea that her 17-year-old daughter Martha (Rachel Trauner) is straining to leave home.
Rena Cherry Brown is at turns hilarious and poignant as Sophia. Her physical energy and focus contribute a steely backbone to McCoy’s drama. Newcomer Rachel Trauner, a sophomore at The George Washington University, provides a terrific mix of fear and needle-sharp determination as she faces her mother, and the world. Colin Smith’s performance as Calvin is low-key but forceful – he holds important information about the family, and doles it out carefully.
McCoy, who is currently Playwright in Residence at the Keegan, is committed to fostering dialogue about the urban/rural divide. No doubt it is an increasingly important conversation. Following its DC premiere, West By God will travel to West Virginia as the pilot project in the KeeganConnects tour. In January 2020, the play will be staged at Marshall University in Huntington over two weekends, with audience talkbacks and community engagement events offered in collaboration with other local theatres and non-profit organizations. LEARN MORE ABOUT THE TOUR