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.
By FRANK EPISALE
"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.
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
|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
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
|AUGUST 12, 2003|
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