Brandon McCoy admits that he has written a love letter to his home state of West Virginia. McCoy has created a work that is both personal and heartachingly relatable to anyone who has pulled up roots and moved away from home. And yet, his home of West Virginia, as he shows in West by God’s earnest vision of a rural family, exists as one of the forgotten places of our country, caught in a trap of poverty and unfair societal perceptions.
And see, in describing West Virginia, our neighbor within a 3 hours drive, by its stereotype, I’ve just fallen into a trap. West by God demonstrates how much West Virginia has to offer as a home and a place of beauty and how least deserving is the intolerance often heaped on it. The play opens with Robert (Kevin Hasser) chatting and eventually befriending Reginald (DeJeanette Horne) on a flight into Charleston, WV. For Reggie, it’s a business trip, but for Robert, who has lived in DC for thirteen years, it is a reluctant trip home. Robert tells Reggie the things that make West Virginia home: friendships you can easily strike up, for example, and the magnificent West Virginia hot dogs (for real).
McCoy’s earnest writing shines through in these moments, lifted up by the cast’s charm and chemistry. Robert’s rapturous description of the pleasures of West Virginia — the food, the down-to-earth people, the natural beauty, even the way the plane touches down at our home airport — evokes the pleasures of home for all of us migrants, wherever we originated. I brought along a friend from West Virginia for this performance, and these heartfelt connections moved her to think of her home and me to think of my home in Puerto Rico.
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But this is more than a memory play, and more than a travelogue. Bella, a Georgetown professor (Susan Marie Rhea) teaches a course in Appalachia, and her objective is to shine a light on a form of bigotry that gets a pass from American society.
Why, she asks her class, are we so comfortable in dismissing, or mocking, rural communities in ways that wouldn’t be permitted with other disenfranchised communities? By challenging her students’ own biases and bigotry, Bella sets off a career-challenging controversy. In the midst of it, she, too, returns home to West Virginia, and we learn the reason she left in the first place.
The set depicts this family’s deep connections to their area. The blanket on the sofa evolves with the sports seasons from Cincinnati Reds to West Virginian Mountaineers. The wooden backdrop hints at the dilapidated, but still homey, structures of a world persevering.
Sophia (Rena Cherry Brown) is a widow living comfortably enough on Social Security. Her son Calvin (Colin Smith) has just lost his job. As with most of the cast, Brown and Smith exemplify such a natural chemistry, you’d have trouble convincing me that they were not actually related, so natural do they seem with each other.
West by God closes October 20, 2019. Details and tickets
Sophia’s sister Agnes (Sheri S. Herren) and daughter Martha (Rachel Trauner) struggle to find peace together once Martha reveals her desire to leave Wet Virginia. Trauner, George Washington University sophomore in her professional debut, turns in a nicely nuanced performance as a teenager entrapped by her place of birth.
Are there flaws with the play? Sure. It juggles a number of issues – American’s bigotry toward people from Appalachia, class issues, economic issues, long buried family hatreds – and can sometimes get a bit bogged down. Family fights can feel like there’s more at stake (and there always is). Within the emotional structure for most families, we are constantly juggling our individual politics and values to keep safe that place that feels like home.
All in all, the play works successfully to build a deeper understanding of McCoy’s West Virginia that will make audiences want to plan a visit. West Virginians will have the chance to see this play as Keegan brings it to Marshall University in Huntington in the following months.
Jeremy Skidmore came from North Carolina to direct this play, and Rena Cherry Brown, until recently a local treasure, came from her new home in Nashville to perform the play’s pivotal role. Once you see West by God, you’ll understand why they uprooted themselves to take part in the debut of Brandon McCoy’s West by God.
West by God by Brandon McCoy. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Featuring Sheri S. Herren, Kevin Hasser, DeJeanette Horne, Susan Marie Rhea, Colin Smith, Rachel Trauner, Rena Cherry Brown, Neely Seams (in WV), understudy Karen Novack. Production: Cindy Landrum Jacobs, Properties / Set Dressing Design; Matthew J. Keenan, Set Design; Sydney Moore, Costume Design; G. Ryan Smith, Lighting Design; Brandon McCoy, Original Music Composition; Stage Manager: Nikki Hoffpauir. Produced by Keegan Theatre. Reviewed by Julian Oquendo.