by Jo Ann Rosen · August 9, 2014
In The Van Meder Trust, Playwright Beth Danesco uses South African history, intermarriage, absentee parenthood and their surrogates, and the importance of responsible decision-making to dramatize an engaging, coming-of-age story of a black teenager living in Boston. With a very good cast, this makes for very meaty fare in the 18th annual New York International Fringe Festival.
This two-act play focuses on 13-year-old Charlotte, who lives first with arrogant Grandmother Nadine, who instills fear, and then with her kind African-American aunt and uncle Theodora and George, who provide the stability she needs. Tension is introduced when Charlotte’s Afrikaner Aunt Afton arrives. She is fiercely independent, wise, and she is white. She is also the half-sister of Eric, Charlotte’s neglectful father, whose wife, an African-American woman, is hooked on cocaine. The genealogy feels messy and it’s meant to. Charlotte is unsure of who she is, and, despite Theo and George’s affection, feels like discarded goods. Afton intends to offer moral and financial support to Charlotte – a clear threat to Theodora. Charlotte is a sweet, appealing character, who does well in school. However, she is a loner, afraid to participate and to commit to friends. Although this is not completely clear in Act I, Theodora rightly worries about Charlotte.
As a Van Meder, Charlotte is due a substantial amount of money. The South African Van Meders have asked Charlotte to submit to a paternity test to prove she is entitled to the Trust. Uncle George is enraged and sees race written all over the wall. He points to the solid home they’ve given Charlotte as enough for their niece. Aunt Theodora sounds a note of reason: “This is not about what [Charlotte] needs. I want her to have what she can get.”
As it happens, Aunt Afton holds the purse strings to the enormous Trust to which Charlotte is apparently entitled. She takes Charlotte to museums, confers with her teacher, Jason Donovan, and talks to Charlotte about South Africa, her school project. The mention of apartheid by her white aunt riles Charlotte. If she had lived there during apartheid, she says, she would not have been able to find a job, or vote. Afton pauses and says, ‘Worse,’ and goes into grisly detail, as if to prod her into doing further research. To Afton, it is important for her niece to learn that generosity is the opposite of fear. This will give her power and strength to manage her life and then help others.
Act I carefully sets the ground work for the more interesting Act II, when Eric, Charlotte’s ne’er-do-well father arrives from South Africa unannounced. Greedy Grandmother Nadine also enters the picture ready to grab what she can. Meanwhile, our protagonist begins to wade into these difficult waters. We watch her face-off with adults, explaining what she expects of them. It is gratifying to watch her find her voice.
There are strong performances. Alexandria Danielle King shows depth, particularly in Act II, as Charlotte develops strength. Kathy-Ann Hart brings soft-spoken grace to the role of Theodora. Alan R. White as Uncle George lends stability to the household, certain of his world, however limited, and how it should be. Liz Adams is convincing as the independent Afton. The role of Grandmother Nadine is played with delicious arrogance and greed by Dayenne C. Byron Walters.
This is a solid, meaty play. With a little editing, especially in Act I, it could easily come in under the current two hours. It’s worth seeing.