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    The weight of history

    Despite some difficulties in staging, "Slavery" brings life to some very powerful material — the oral history recorded by former slaves during the Great Depression.


    "Slavery" is an emotionally devastating project, the technical flaws of which are far overshadowed by the overall strength of the work on display and by the urgency of the subject matter. Drawing his text and his inspiration from 1930s WPA interviews with former slaves, writer/director Jonathan Payne stages "Slavery" not as a series of interviews but as a kind of group therapy session in a church basement or around a campfire. Invoking the tradition of oral storytelling, he structures the piece as a series of monologues juxtaposed with group renditions of tradition Negro spirituals. The picture that emerges is that of a culture born from abuse and injustice, and the desperate struggle to find meaning and hope where they seem least likely to reside.

    Written and directed by: Jonathan Payne.
    Cast: Maxine Carter, Phillip B. Davis, Jasmine Jobit, Jonathan Payne, Jodi Pershing, Gehane Strehler, Anthony Tomkins.
    Sets and Costumes: Leif Ganvoort, Mike Tomko, Maxine Carter.
    Bottle Factory Theater
    195 East 3rd Street
    Aug. 8-24, 2003

    The opening of the performance, as well as some transitional moments, highlighted the weaknesses of the production. During these ensemble moments, the characters alternate speaking or singing solo while the others hum or chant or sing harmony. While the entire cast had strong voices, one or two tended to overpower the rest, too often including the soloist or speaker. As the first ten minutes or so of the show were made up of these montage-like moments, there was cause for some concern that much of the spoken material would be difficult to hear, clearly a problem in a piece built around storytelling.

    Throughout many of these interludes, the actors shuffled around the stage as if bound by chains on slave ships or auction blocks. It is when they stood up one by one and took center stage to tell their stories, though, that the emotional power of the project came into focus. The monologues are laced with brutal details: a woman's nine-month-old sister beaten to death for crying; a new wife beheaded by her husband's owner; men rubbed with salt and pepper before beatings; the owner saying he needed to "season them up."

    The performances were mostly strong. As the interviews were conducted when the ex-slaves were in their 80s and 90s, the young actors were asked to affect a variety of ailments and eccentric speech patterns, but also to drop these and embrace the former youth of the characters when the memories invoked by their monologues were at their strongest. Particularly successful with this technique were Anthony Tomkins (as Frank Bell), Maxine Carter (as Mittie S. Armstrong) and Payne (as W.L. Bost). Gehane Strehler struggled in her portrayal of Susan Snow, over-scoring the shifts in emotion and tone of her story rather than letting the text do most of the work for her.

    While many of the monologues brought tears to the eyes of audience members, the songs were mostly uplifting in tone. They were performed beautifully, with rafter-shaking power and uniform conviction from the actors. It wasn't easy to embrace the joy of the spirituals, though, within the context of the pain of the subject as a whole. It is also difficult to escape the irony of songs that seek comfort from a god and religion imposed on the slaves by their owners.

    It's impossible to discuss this performance without noting that the audience, typical of downtown theater, was mostly white. As such, references in the play to those "white folk" who never believed in slavery were particularly resonant, a chance for audience members to hope that they would have been one of these dissenting abolitionists. The final song was the only one written by a white man: "Amazing Grace," by slave trader John Newton, whose newfound Christianity led him to the conclusion that slavery was inherently wrong. Given the structure of the play, eye contact was allowed between actors and audience, making more tangible the immediacy of slavery as an issue, how recently it was a reality.

    "Slavery" is subtitled "A Celebration of Spirit," and its defining moments were indeed moments of strength, such as Maxine Carter's Delicia Patterson standing on the auction block declaring that if the notorious slave owner "Judge Miller" successfully bid on her she would slit her throat and render his purchase worthless, forcing him to back down and let someone else buy her. Nevertheless, the image that lingered longest with this critic was that of seven young black performers shuffling onto stage under the full weight of American history.

    AUGUST 12, 2003

    Reader comments on Slavery:

  • hiiiiiiiiiiiii   from Adrianne, May 18, 2004
  • arg   from angelica, Dec 17, 2004
  • slavery overall   from , Aug 31, 2006
  • Slavery   from kAyLa, Nov 6, 2008
  • Slavery   from Marilyn, Jun 18, 2010

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