Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard starts in a nearly empty 19th-century Russian manor, as a lily-white man waits for the estate’s mistress. Regina Taylor’s Magnolia begins in a bustling 1963 Atlanta diner, as a black man waits for his eggs. The differences are glaring. The commonalities run deep.
“When I first heard of Chekhov, it was like ‘Today we’re going to learn about this guy whose grandparents brought themselves out of slavery,’” recalls Taylor, 48. “And I’m all excited thinking, That’s my history, my perspective. Then they say, ‘He’s a 19th-century Russian’”—make that a 19th-century Russian whose exquisite depiction of families knotted by tragedy is so universal it makes the Moscow hinterlands seem as familiar as your own hometown. “Chekhov was a seer,” she says.
Taylor transplants The Cherry Orchard to the Deep South in her new play, which opens in March at the Goodman Theatre. In the title tree, she has found an almost perfect metaphor. “Magnolias—you can chop them up, burn them down. The underground roots connecting them survive,” she says. “All our memories and histories? That’s our shared root. Try to ignore it, kill it. You can’t. The question is, how do you deal with it?”
Taylor has dealt through her art. Today, the Golden Globe–winning actor (PBS’s I’ll Fly Away) and playwright is based in Dallas, but much of her work has begun at the Goodman. Her hip-hop-infused Drowning Crow (Chekhov’s Seagull set in South Carolina) went from the Goodman to Broadway in 2004. That same year, she opened Crowns, now one of the most widely produced musicals in the country.
“They’ve helped me find my voice,” Taylor says of the Goodman. The collaboration began in Kentucky in 1994, when the company’s artistic director, Robert Falls, caught the premiere of Taylor’s Watermelon Rinds at the Louisville Humana Festival for New American Plays and promptly invited Taylor to become a founding member of the theatre’s fledgling Artistic Collective. Taylor now says her “ten-year plan” includes moving to Chicago and working at a university here. “That’s my dream,” she says.
GO: Goodman Theatre 170 N. Dearborn St.; 312-443-3800; goodmantheatre.com March 14th through April 19th
Photograph: Scott Council
Hair: Tiffany Daugherty/Epiphany Artist Group, Inc. Makeup: Autumn Moultrie/Exclusive Artists