‘Red Soil’: When Diversity is a Dirty Word

Thomas Burns Scully

OnStage New York Critic


‘Africa’ is a word with a lot of stigma attached to it. A tragic state of affairs, when a continent so rich in history, nature and culture is instead synonymous with disease, human tragedy, and Bono’s desperate attempts to stay relevant. It’s a problem the great white west has in spades: the pigeonholing of other cultures. And it’s not unique to Africa. Caribbean culture, too, has all be lumped in to a homogeneous glob, with countries like the Dominican Republic lost in the brass. How do we break through barriers of cultural bias and get through to the honest humanity beyond? As you might have guessed, given where you are reading this, theatre may well have something to do with the answer. Enter: Red Soil Productions. 

Red Soil Productions is a theatre and film company founded by Matthew Stannah (from Nairobi, Kenya) and award-winning director Yudelka Heyer (from the Dominican Republic). They showcase new, innovative work in which pain and struggle is brought to life in the form of art. Their goal is to shed light on stories that are not often told, with a particularly African and Caribbean focus. The company’s declared mission is to bring these untouched, unrefined stories of love, heartbreak, and bravery to the fore in the world of American theatre and film. 

They debuted in 2013 with their production of ‘Red Valley’, written by Matthew Stannah and directed by Yudelka Heyer. Critical response was excellent, and this play, based on true life accounts of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, became the foundation on which they have built their church. In many ways, ‘Red Valley’ exemplifies Red Soil’s mission. Instead of being simply a harrowing account of native brutality (though the play has no shortage of brutality), the play deals even-handedly with both sides of the story, giving the indigenous and white populations the platform to be sympathetic and villainous. It also serves as a testament to common humanity, and the power of family above tribal, racial or political affiliation. With these values in mind, Red Soil has continued to grow and diversify.

Stints on the one-act scene in NYC gave the chance for the company to explore both dramatic and comedic veins with ‘Anna’s Hope’ (by Yudelka Heyer) and ‘Good Morning’ (by Matthew Stannah). ‘Anna’s Hope’ was a semi-finalist at the Strawberry One-Act festival, while ’Good Morning’ was a finalist and went on to be featured in a later double-bill of Red Soil one-acts called ‘Good Morning and Good Night’. ‘Good Night’ was written by Christopher Wharton. You may remember my positive review of this sometime last year. Their staged reading of ‘Somewhere on the Border’ by Anthony Akerman (Directed by Zenon Kruszelnicki) in 2015 was a return to faire closer to ‘Red Valley’s militant tone. However you’d be mistaken if you were to think that they have been quiet recently…

Heyer and Stannah’s perseverance and commitment to craft took them in to the world of film. Their Noir-inspired short ‘Unfinished Business’ appeared prominently at the NYC Independent Film Festival recently and featured many of the company’s recurring players. It was directed by Yudelka Heyer and Victor Diaz. They also developed a documentary and short narrative film as part of the 48 Hour Film Festival, and created web series ‘Monologues With Ketchup’ as a platform to showcase actors. However, they are currently set for what could well be their biggest project yet. This Summer they return to the world of theatre, to produce the New York Premier of ‘A Man Like You’ by Silvia Cassini. This play, recently presented with great success in Kenya, delves into the mind of the terrorist. Religion and long-held belief are called in to question, and the audience is forced to consider the play’s ominous tagline “Who is the real terrorist?”

With so much meaty success in their past, and such bright prospects glinting over the horizon, Red Soil is a theatre company on the rise with plans to stick around. Their unique blend of Steppenwolfish rawness and nonconformist African and Caribbean aesthetic makes them a force to be reckoned with. Their candid takes on societal mores make them a voice to be considered academically. But most of all, their hard and fast adherence to strong original writing, fearless actors and directorial prowess makes them producers of damn fine theatre. And if for that reason and that reason alone, you have had your interest piqued… then you most assuredly must buy a ticket to their next show. You would be a fool not to.

Follow Red Soil on
Facebook: https://goo.gl/HBHg4V
Twitter: @r3dsoilpro
Official Website: red-soil-productions.com

This preview was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)