The Huntington's 'Our Daughters, Like Pillars' has family at heartPlay
After years apart because of the pandemic, families are finally starting to gather again. This is the heart of a new play at the Huntington Theatre Company. Opening April 8, “Our Daughters, Like Pillars,” written by Kirsten Greenidge and directed by Kimberly Senior, is a comedy that grapples with some serious topics about family and identity.
If you have siblings then you know that things can go from good to complicated very quickly. That’s exactly what happens with the Shaw sisters at the center of this story. Lavinia (Nikkole Salter) is the uptight eldest sister. The middle sister, Octavia (Arie Thompson), is constantly playing peacemaker. Then there’s the youngest, Zelda (Lyndsay Allyn Cox), who feels like her sisters don’t take her seriously. They’re together again at a vacation home in New Hampshire after time apart because of COVID-19. But tensions quickly rise when Zelda shows up in an RV with a brand new boyfriend.
Greenidge has two sisters herself whom she lives with. This dynamic partially inspired her desire to explore the complexity that comes with belonging to a family. “I think that that's really the question of the play is how do we interact with each other when we may have competing narratives about what our family history is?” she says.
This question drives the interactions between the Shaw sisters. Zelda, in particular, is ready to break free from her role as the “baby sister.” “She spends a lot of the play, I think, trying to really show everyone that she's an adult and that she's grown up and that she can make decisions for herself,” says Allyn Cox. “But in doing that, she also really reveals that she definitely is the younger sister of this family.”
So often, the identity we have within our family is different from the one we have in other spaces in our lives. "We have these roles that are sometimes prescribed. Like 'only child,' 'only boy,' 'oldest of five girls,'” explains Greenidge. “Any of those things can then also pre-determine how we may navigate through that family.”
When the Shaw matriarch, Yvonne (Lizan Mitchell), shows up, anxieties intensify. In one scene, eldest sister Lavinia is eager to prove herself. “I'm thinking about doing those potatoes, just the way that you did them,” she says excitedly to her mother. But Yvonne ignores Lavinia and wordlessly gets up and leaves as her daughter is speaking. For Greenidge, exploring this unspoken tension between the sisters and their mother was critical. “I got interested in that idea about what the mother of the family, and both parents, are asking these women to do.”
The name of the play is pulled from a Bible verse. “Then our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants, and our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace.” The verse made Greenidge think about what being a “pillar” in a household means. “What is a daughter's role? And if the daughters do not want to do that, then what happens?” she says.
“I think Kirsten has borrowed from American writers in the past century who were predominantly white and predominantly male,” says director Kimberly Senior. “ And what Kirsten has done is not react to or against, but instead has said, ‘Now what if it comes through me, through my body, through a Black woman in New England telling this story about a family? What does family look like?'”
The Shaws, a family of strong Black women, all have many different roles to fill. Portraying a complex and nuanced family was a priority. “We spent a lot of time unpacking and realizing that Black families aren't a monolith,” says Allyn Cox. “But that there is some connective tissue in some common threads that exist no matter where we grew up… I really hope that people can see themselves in this story and these characters because I think that's how change happens.”
“Our Daughters like Pillars” is a breath of fresh air at a moment when many people, and families, are fractured by differences. While the play is about the Shaw family, at its heart, the play is truly about connection. “I think Kirsten has written a play that gives a little bit of an homage to New England, which I think is beautiful,” Allyn Cox said. “But she gives a really brilliant homage to the Black family. And I think it's a story that people need to see and to enjoy.”
The Huntington Theatre Company's staging of "Our Daughters, Like Pillars" runs April 8-May 8.
This segment aired on April 8, 2022.