Actors Impress in Psychological Drama


Hayley Drapkin

In College senior Preston Crowder’s play The Monsters Underneath, Giselle (College junior Zoe Davidson) argues with her daughter Syn (College sophomore Deja Alexander). The play, which deals with the effects of abuse and subsequent healing processes, premiered at Little Theater Dec. 3–6.

Louise Edwards, Arts Editor

Editor’s Note: This article discusses sexual violence and abuse.

In College senior Preston Crowder’s play The Monsters Underneath, the Warington siblings descend on the family home in Moore Hills, TN, to visit their ailing sister, Yari (College junior Calpyso Smith). The opening scene of the play, which premiered Dec. 3–6 at Little Theater, is filled with a tumult of angry voices as the family quarrels in the living room of a home that is broken, both literally and figuratively. The house itself smells and is in disrepair, but the family members clearly also have challenges relating to each other. As Yari’s younger sister Syn (College sophomore Deja Alexander) says, “I came here for my sister and that’s it.” This extended insult slinging is an overwhelming yet clever way of introducing the majority of Monster’s characters. Not only does one get a sense of each character’s personality, but they also begin to understand how the characters relate to one another and the power dynamics at play in their relationships.

Syn’s brother Sean Jr. (College senior Johnny Spinkston) flaunts his two psychology degrees and success in his career to establish authority in the argument and to earn validation from his mother, Giselle (College junior Zoe Davidson). Sean Jr.’s wife, Maya (College junior Olivia DeToma), acts as an intruder into the Black family’s household with her superficial politeness and at first overly sugary personality. Yet Giselle caters to Maya’s needs despite her irritating demeanor and rejects Syn, her own daughter, by treating her with hostility. While Syn is equally antagonistic toward her family members, she becomes the target of Sean Jr.’s homophobic comments about her lesbian identity, and her mother matches this hostility with a cold demeanor. On top of these complex family dynamics, an unnerving old man, Bobby (College sophomore Andre Cardine) cuts through the scene to go to the mysterious basement where he lives. In his stellar performance, Cardine effortlessly transforms into his character, hunching over and limping while absent-mindedly singing an eerie tune in a raspy voice. Additionally, throughout the play, loud and startling bangs are emitted from the basement, and Bobby makes sure the family members don’t enter the basement and find out what secrets he keeps there.

While these scenes are hard to take in, especially with the excessive swearing, they make Syn and Yari’s reunion all the more touching. In contrast to the tough relationships between Syn and her other family members, she and Yari embrace each other and quickly fall into a warm conversation reminiscing about their childhood. Smith gave a compelling performance, curling tiredly onto the couch yet balancing her physical ailing with powerfully delivered lines. Eventually, Syn tucks her older sister into bed, one of the last gentle actions in the rest of the play and a welcome break from the dark secrets of abuse and violence that continue to unravel throughout.

Ingeniously, much of the action takes place on a stormy night, which allows the characters to have a series of private conversations with each other when they come downstairs as a respite from their restless sleeps. DeToma acts convincingly shocked when Giselle astutely notes that

Maya is pregnant and hasn’t told her husband. The disturbing secrets begin to be exposed when it is revealed that the father of Maya’s baby is actually Giselle’s husband. Sean Jr. reacts by trying to enact a fantasy of sleeping with his mother and Giselle threatens Maya with a knife. Davidson handled her character’s emotional shift well, morphing from an falsely cheery mother to a wife violent with jealousy with the help of a few adjustments — picking up the knife, smirking slightly and adding a desperate tone to her lines. It seems almost implausible that these disturbing layers of violence could happen all at once in one family until it is revealed that Syn’s father sexually assaulted and abused her as a child. Then the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place, and one realizes that all these acts of violence are connected to Syn’s father’s sexual and emotional abuse of his family. The play demonstrates how abuse impacts not only survivors of abuse, but those surrounding them as well. Even though Syn’s father does not even appear as a character in the play, his actions have an overpowering effect on the characters and ultimately drive the plot line.

It is only after an illuminating visit from magical medicine woman Cora Knight (College senior Sophie Mvurya) and the death of Yari that the family members begin to take back control of their own lives. In her performance, Mvurya carefully created a dreamlike yet authoritative persona. She alluded to the fact that she is a spirit through her words, but filled the space with purposeful steps and a proud attitude. In the end, however, Mvurya’s character can’t save Yari. In such a time of crisis, Syn reaches out to her brother and says, “I’ll be praying for you, Sean Jr.” Warmth and honesty came across in Sean Jr.’s response, as Spinkston navigated the complex emotions of the character well with his body language. He turns away from Syn toward the door, both acknowledging Syn and making an escape from such a troubled household. The play demonstrates how, in spite of hate, violence and abuse, characters can still begin to find room for love and healing.

Although one might think that all the secrets have been revealed, Crowder saves a final secret for the last scene: Who is Bobby and what is he hiding in the basement? In a final confrontation with Syn, Bobby reveals Yari had gotten pregnant after being sexually abused by her father and had killed her baby, burying it in the basement. While the banging noises coming from the basement may seem confusing in this context, they serve as a metaphorical reminder of the fears and secrets the family is nervous about revealing to each other.

Crowder’s dark play, though difficult to watch, ultimately allows one to become entrenched in the deep psychology of his well-constructed characters and grow with them into a place where self-acceptance is a possibility.