Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria—maybe star-crossed lovers are better off dead. Their great romances reunite feuding families, but only after the lovebirds have been killed off. What would've happened to them, and their families, if they'd lived long enough to have kids? That is the central question in Black Like Us, a multiracial family saga by local writer Rachel Atkins that begins in 1958 with an argument between two sisters.
Starry-eyed Florence (Chelsea Binta) is planning to elope with an Italian she met on the job at the Bon Marché. There's just one problem: Florence has been passing to him and to her employers as white. "What about when he wants to meet your family?" asks the more hard-nosed Maxine (Dior Davenport). "I told them my family died," Florence says. "It wasn't anything personal!" On the contrary, there's nothing much more personal, Maxine argues, and Florence would be abandoning more than her family. "There's a movement starting now," she says, "and not just in the South."
Florence elopes anyway, splitting what would have been one Seattle family into two: the family Florence came from and Florence's future family, which won't discover its African side for generations. When their granddaughters meet for the first time, toward the end of the play, it's clear that even though they're related, and grew up in the same city, they're living in different worlds. "I was just wondering," one of Florence's granddaughters asks with a hint of vulturish eagerness, "do you know if any of our ancestors were, you know—slaves?" "Well," a woman from Maxine's side snaps back, "you are aware that not too many black folks came here voluntarily, aren't you?"
Black Like Us lingers too long in the intractable rift between the sisters—Maxine, an activist, maintains her cold anger; Florence, who never reveals her secret, is eternally flustered and apologetic—and its livelier passages concern the family's generational drift. In one scene that's both funny and chilling, Florence is visiting her daughter in the Central District (she'd moved unwittingly close to her mother's childhood home) when a neighbor stops by to drop something off. That neighbor is Maxine, and the two sisters pretend to be strangers for the sake of Florence's now-intergenerational racial ruse.
Despite pacing that occasionally stumbles and a script that sometimes indulges in redundancy, Black Like Us is a sharp slice into the racial history of an American city from an unusual perspective—the "white" and "black" members of the same family appearing to each other as essentially alien. Hopefully, Atkins will have a chance to tinker with the script and Black Like Us will have many more productions in its future.