Fascia, Ma’at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre, at Chicago Dramatists. Shepsu Aakhu’s new play, directed by Mignon McPherson Nance, is both frustrating and emotionally satisfying. Its goal–to tell the story of five generations of a troubled African-American family simultaneously–is often undermined by an obstinate insubstantiality: it’s difficult to pin down the action and characters. When an actress comes back onstage with a minor hairdo change, is she playing the same character as when she left? Or her mother or sister? Or a younger version of herself? In order to conceal a plot twist, the story’s frame–two cousins in the present are trying to reconnect–is kept sketchy until the end. The result is a seemingly random weaving of subplots and characters in the first act as difficult to interpret as history in the making.

Yet many individual moments offer clear, beautiful glimpses of the family’s difficult, joyful life: a “conjuring woman” teaches her niece to read the future, a woman pinches her husband to keep him quiet, a frightened young mother dances beside a cradle to silence her baby. And once the characters’ identities and motivations click into place in the second act, the play takes off. The ensemble performs Aakhu’s lyrical dialogue, accompanied by Poh’ro’s original music played live, with passion and conviction, drawing us into the story’s emotional heart. The tangled family ties are gradually unsnarled, revealing the ways in which a family survives despite slavery, segregation, and the imprisoning conditions of city life.

–Jennifer Vanasco