A Chicago Teenager Seeks Her Birth Mother in “A Twist of Water”; Passage Concludes its Mainstage Season with Caitlin Parrish’s Drama
“A TWIST OF WATER”: Passage Theatre has presented an online production of “A Twist of Water.” Written by Caitlin Parrish (from a story by Parrish and Erica Weiss), and directed by Michael Osinski, the play portrays a widowed history teacher whose adopted daughter Jira (depicted above) decides to search for her birth mother. (Artwork by Jonathan Connor and Leon Rainbow, courtesy of Passage Theatre)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Passage Theatre has concluded its mainstage season with A Twist of Water. The drama depicts Noah, a history teacher who confronts the death of his husband and the decision of their adopted African American teenage daughter, Jira, to seek out her birth mother.
Written by Caitlin Parrish, from a story by Parrish and Erica Weiss, A Twist of Water premiered in 2011. Set in Chicago, the play debuted in that city (produced by Route 66 Theatre Company). An off-Broadway run followed in 2012.
Passage’s online presentation was presented May 12-16. A press release observes that the play “portrays characters with intersecting identities that include race and sexual orientation.”
The video begins with a caption to remember that A Twist of Water “takes place in what is colonially known as the city of Chicago, which is located on the traditional unceded homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations.” While it is becoming customary for theaters to begin events with a land acknowledgement, the subject is thematically connected to this play.
“Chicago is Chicago because of its water,” Noah remarks philosophically. “In the 1600s French explorers were making their way across the continent and came upon a river, which was called ‘shikaakwa’ by the Native Americans.” As a young woman gazes out at what presumably is either Lake Michigan or the Chicago River, Noah adds, “The newcomers heard this name, and their version became ‘Chicago.”
This contemplative opening monologue (which presumably is preparation for a lesson) is in sharp contrast to the subsequent scene, in which Noah (Josh Tyson) frantically makes repeated calls to Jira, to find out where she is. Jira (Kishia Nixon) finally answers, and coolly explains that she has been “by the lake.”
Tyson’s fidgety body language captures the character’s agitation. Nixon, in turn, often turns away from Tyson’s screen, as if Jira is avoiding eye contact. Estrangement is palpable.
When Noah berates Jira for not having her phone with her, she retorts that she thought he would be going out for a drink. He replies that he still would want to check on her, and that her (late) father would be ashamed of her behavior. “You weren’t even with him,” she shoots back, and abruptly wonders where her birth mother lives. Noah admits that he does not know, but Jira is determined to find out; she wants “more family.”
At Jira’s high school we see Noah’s colleague Liam, an English teacher who is 13 years Noah’s junior, observing the students’ interactions. (“Today Kelvin becomes a man — and dies one,” is his wry description of a student’s attempt to impress a female classmate.) Liam is played by Daniel Colón, whose debonair performance is characterized by smooth line deliveries, and a penetrating gaze.
Alert to the fact that Liam is a colleague who has Jira as a student, Noah initially evades the more eager man’s advances, though he gradually relaxes this stance and lets an intimate relationship develop. We learn that Jira does not put much effort into Liam’s class due to an explicit lack of interest (she prefers less abstract subjects, such as biology).
Jira persists in her determination to meet her birth mother. This hurts Noah, who does not understand her need to meet a person whom he considers a stranger, since he already has evinced a desire to be a parent to her. Jira harbors a deep-seated anger toward Noah (contemptuously she advises Liam not to date him), though we are not immediately told why.
In a private conversation with Liam, Jira reveals the source of her bitterness: Noah’s late spouse, an endocrinologist named Richard Brennan, died in a car crash. The
hospital staff denied Noah entry into Richard’s room, because at the time he was not officially considered family. (Jira was admitted, after Noah presented the carefully guarded adoption papers.)
Jira is traumatized from being in the room alone to watch Richard die, and feels that Noah should have put up more of a fight. (Nixon’s performance makes it clear — largely through facial expressions — that Jira’s attitude is rooted in sadness.) Noah later counters that at least Jira got to say goodbye, and that had he argued with the hospital staff, both of them would have been denied entry, and Richard would have died alone. This plot point is achingly resonant in the era of COVID.
Through the adoption agency Jira discovers details about her biological mother, Tia (imbued with dignified poise by Wendi Smith). Tia was 16 when she became pregnant. Her parents left her no choice but to put Jira up for adoption.
Eventually the agency arranges a meeting. Although initially overcome with emotion at seeing Jira, who resembles Tia’s mother, Tia has a new life, having married and had a son. (Her new family is unaware of the meeting.) At a fraught moment Tia excuses herself, saying that she needs “some water.”
A Twist of Water inescapably borrows from recognizable plot elements. A reunion of
biological parents with an adoptee has been the basis for numerous stories, including the Family Ties episode “Baby Boy Doe” (1984) as well as recent films such as October Baby and Daughter of Mine. However, the play’s characters make the recombination work. The scene in which Jira meets Tia, and Noah subsequently attempts to offer a comforting response, is genuinely moving.
The reunion is the segment that is best served by the electronic format. Passage’s season has demonstrated that online productions often are most effective when paired with plays such as Christmas 2.0 or Babel, which use technology as a central plot device. A Twist of Water needs a level of physical immediacy that Zoom cannot replicate. But a strategic screen configuration — Jira and Tia next to each other, with Noah beneath them — conveys Noah’s tactful self-placement in the background.
Although thematically linked to the action, Noah’s frequent monologues about Chicago history start to resemble a documentary, accompanied by interesting but slightly overabundant sequences of historical and recent images of the city. However, these images are attractively underscored by Damien Figueras’ reflective music, which is performed by guitarists Corinne Kite-Dean and Donnie Grimm.
Directed by Michael Osinski, the production subtly responds to ideas in the script. Costume Designer An-lin Dauber dresses Jira in a NASA shirt; in a subsequent scene Noah mentions the space program in one of his monologues. Scenic Designer Marie Laster’s backgrounds highlight the central source of conflict between Jira and Noah: in a split screen Noah is ensconced in his home, while Jira is outdoors, uncertain whether she wishes to call Noah’s residence her home.
Parrish and Weiss are the creators of the 2019 CBS series The Red Line. Audiences who are familiar with that drama may notice that it shares many elements with A Twist of Water. In the series a teacher is widowed when his African American husband, a doctor, is fatally shot by a white officer. The couple has an adopted daughter named Jira, whose birth mother Tia (a city council candidate) is married and has a young son. The teacher has a colleague and love interest named Liam.
In A Twist of Water Jira’s search for her past often collides with Noah’s attempt to look toward the future by starting a new relationship, but both seek to rebuild their lives. This consideration of the need to recover from a loss and start over, in tandem with an exploration of loneliness, gives the play poignant relevance.
For information about Passage Theatre’s upcoming events, visit passagetheatre.org.