‘Son of Soil’ embraces but never accepts the weight of death

| Senior Cadenza Editor

As a freshman, Andie Berry decided to add submitting to the A.E. Hotchner playwriting festival to her college bucket list after seeing the annual staged readings of the winning three scripts. Now a senior, not only did Berry submit to—and win—the festival, but also her play “Son of Soil” was chosen to be produced by the Performing Arts Department in a five-show run this spring.

“Son of Soil,” which wrapped up performances this past weekend, starts with death, proceeds through death and ends with rebirth and redemption, if not begrudgingly so. The story of three women—Ruth, Sage and Patricia—“Son of Soil” opens with Ruth center stage, crying for her son as the cast intones, “Are you, are you going to the tree?” The ensemble’s narration of how Ruth’s son was shot and hung by an unnamed but assuredly white assailant, puts this particular plot in motion. The tragedy truly symbolizes a normalized routine of death in Peak, Ohio—the play’s setting. “He been dying, each breath he has is his last,” Ruth says in that first scene, encapsulating the message of the play in one line.

Sage (left), Ruth and Patricia played by Ebby Offord, Michell Miller and Tiffany Powell. courtesy of the Performing Arts Department

Sage (left), Ruth and Patricia played by Ebby Offord, Michell Miller and Tiffany Powell.

The inevitability of death holds such purchase over the three women that Ruth and Patricia make a pact to drown their sons in order to have them die with compassion—something that could not be guaranteed otherwise. Despite Ruth breaking the pact and holding on to her boy, the knowledge that he will be taken from her abruptly never dissipates, leading to mourning muted in its expression.

Blackness and the inherent danger black skin presents set the rules of this dystopian future (or partially realized present). Peak is divided—characters consistently refer to “White Peak” as the other side, only sharing a school and a grocery store. Where paper routes and riding bikes after school define a young white man’s experience in “White” Peak, death prevents a young black man from having any experiences in Peak.

The thread of a black boy’s unavoidable killing first emerged when Berry conceived the script following the shooting of Michael Brown her sophomore year. In charge of writing the skit for Black Anthology’s “The Six” that year, Berry used the emotions she had following the shooting to inform that performance, but still felt she hadn’t addressed her own feelings.

“There were just a lot of things I couldn’t say because of the constraints of the cultural show—the people who are involved, the way that it’s structured, the fact that I was writing with someone else,” Berry said. “I was trying to find a way to talk about the impact of Michael Brown’s death but also the fracturing of St. Louis and the fracturing of campus and the media saturation all at the same time.”

From those emotions, Berry wrote a short group poem for WU-SLam’s “2050”-themed spring show later her sophomore year, which eventually became the basis for the opening scene of “Son of Soil.”

Over the course of the two-hour long performance, the three women attempt to overcome death in all of its various forms. Ruth, played with such precise delicacy by Michelle Miller, hangs on to the memory of her son in the form of his unborn child carried by Nia, Patricia’s daughter. Sage, who gave up her son Brandon in an attempt to save him from death, confronts Brandon’s return and how to rationalize accepting someone already grieved for. Patricia must come to terms with the daughter she still has despite the son she lost by her own hand 17 years before.

But death is unavoidable, especially in this community, and Nia’s eventual abortion sets both Ruth and Patricia back in how they’ve approached this abbreviated mortality. Perhaps no line summarizes the hopelessness that these characters embrace than an exchange between Brandon and Sage late in the second half.

“Stop talking about life like it’s a game because it’s not,” Sage says, desperate to reconnect with her son.

“But it does take the edge off a bit,” Brandon replies, with a slight chuckle.

Nothing about “Son of Soil” is meant to make you feel good about the world we live in, but that never detracts from its accuracy in portraying struggle.

“None of the characters regardless of their circumstances are particularly happy in the way the world has turned out,” Berry said. “A lot of it is just recognizing your position in the struggle and accepting that and the limits of that and where you belong in a story.”

With a cast primarily composed of people of color, “Son of Soil” could dwell in the oppression systemic to this dystopian future for two hours without reproach. But Berry fought to keep two white male characters in the script, used in part for comic relief, part as a point of reference to show the magnitude of the oppression the main characters face by contrast.

Haverford and Kyle, both white men intending to be allies to the women living in Peak, add context to the urgency of the women’s struggle through their cluelessness. Haverford muddles through most of the play sulking that Ruth doesn’t love him back, whereas Kyle, always well-intentioned, also blunders through his own romantic intentions with Nia.

For Berry, the roles of Haverford and Kyle were vital to the play, despite her mentors encouraging her to take them out.

“I had to find a way to justify them being in the play because I didn’t want to lose them, but I had to make them worth speaking and putting on stage and being seen,” Berry said.

Nia (left) and Kyle played by Angela Alexander and Noah Weiner.courtesy of the Performing Arts Department

Nia (left) and Kyle played by Angela Alexander and Noah Weiner.

That justification comes in the pair’s depiction of companionship and one’s priorities, specifically Kyle’s desired romance with Nia. In the second act, Kyle asks Nia if she likes him immediately after the 17-year-old, pregnant girl asks him to drive her to the clinic. Kyle, continuing to claim that it’s simply a matter of love, either refuses to, or cannot, understand Nia’s cry of being suffocated by the world she lives in. Eventually, he issues the ultimatum, “It’s all on you Nia,” the double entendre implicating the true shortcomings of ally-ship. For the women of Peak, it’s all on them despite being the ones constantly suffocated.

Despite the undertones (and overtones) of the play, Berry never intended to make a particular political statement.

“I don’t necessarily want this play to change anybody’s mind about their politics, or their activism or the way they’re thinking about any kind of social issues, but to know that there are real reasons behind different choices that people have,” Berry said. “If someone leaves the room and is just like ‘Okay that was a nice story,’ then I don’t think I’ve written the right play.”

With the run of performances over, Berry isn’t done with “Son of Soil” just yet. She plans another rewrite and to send the script out to some people who have asked to see the newer version. Besides polishing up this project, Berry has already started writing another play.

On reflection, Berry is grateful for the opportunity “Son of Soil” has provided, if not also pleasantly surprised that it even happened in the first place.

“As an outsider and also as a person of color, I was surprised that they were like ‘Yeah, we’ll put on this show,’” Berry said. “The fact that the University was then committing a lot of energy and resources to putting on this figment of my imagination is really fantastic.”