offoffoff theater



Site links
  • Contact us

    Get our newsletter:
    Search the site:

    Theater section
  • Theater main page
  • Theater archive
  • Theater links

    Current theater

  • Fall Briefs
  • Nick


    Complete archive, 1999-present

    2008-2009 reviews:
  • Anaïs Nin Goes To Hell
  • beast: a parable
  • Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire
  • Blasted
  • Buffalo Gal
  • China: The Whole Enchilada
  • The Corn Maiden
  • Crawl, Fade to White
  • Doruntine
  • Extraordinary Rendition
  • The First Breeze of Summer
  • Fringe Festival 2008
  • Fringe Festival favorites
  • The Glass Cage
  • Hair
  • Hidden Fees* (A Play About Money)
  • Jailbait
  • King of Shadows
  • The Longest Running Joke of the Twentieth Century
  • Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising
  • Macbeth
  • The Master Builder
  • Missa Solemnis, or The Play About Henry
  • Mourn the Living Hector
  • A Nasty Story
  • Nowadays
  • the october crisis (to laura)
  • Oresteia
  • Other Bodies
  • Prayer
  • Psalms of a Questionable Nature
  • Raised by Lesbians
  • Reasonable Doubt
  • Sleepwalk With Me
  • Small Craft Warnings
  • Something Weird . . . in the Red Room
  • Soul Samurai
  • The Sound of One Hanna Clapping
  • Southern Promises
  • The Third from the Left
  • Twelfth Night
  • Voices from Guantánamo
  • The Wendigo
  • Zombie


    Southern Promises
    Photo by Yi Zhao

    Promises Kept

    Thomas Bradshaw's "Southern Promises" twists the sharp knife of satire into the heart of America's slave trade.


    My initial reaction to news of any self-described “playwright provocateur” is usually one of skepticism. The designation seems to suggest a healthy self-regard, a disposition for self-promotion, as well as a potential willingness to view terrorizing the audience as a valid replacement for real theatrical substance. I can only defend this pessimism by brandishing the exhibit ‘A’ of a long history of experience with other self-anointed ‘provocateurs,’ artists who took themselves seriously enough to invent a title for themselves.

    Written by: Thomas Bradshaw.
    Directed by: Joses Zayas.
    Cast: Erwin E. A. Thomas (Benjamin), Lia Aprile (Elizabeth),Jeff Biehl (David), Hugh Sinclair (John), Sandrina Johnson (Charlotte), Peter McCabe (Isaiah).
    Sound design by: David M. Lawson.
    Set design by: Ryan Elliot Kravetz.
    Costumes by: Carla Bellisio.
    Lighting design by: Evan Purcell.
    Production stage manager: Teddy Nicholas.
    P.S. 122
    150 First Ave. at 9th St.
    Sept. 6-27, 2008

    Happily, in the case of Thomas Bradshaw, the whole ‘playwright provocateur ignites the stage’ thing is PR jargon that only tells part of the story. His new play, “Southern Promises,” which is playing until September 27th at P.S. 122, could indeed be called "provocative." However, it is never the case that the audience reaction to the events on stage is not serving a larger purpose, one which is rooted in the story of the play, and in Mr. Bradshaw’s message as an artist. He seems to have a genuine gift for hitting upon a combustible combination of elements that can explode our pre-determined ideas about the world.

    One obvious example of how the production seems to delight in joining two seemingly incompatible elements is illustrated by the set and costumes, which have the sheen of period romance, an unsullied storybook nostalgia for the old southern plantation suggested by Margaret Mitchell. It’s a romance that compliments the blasé, matter-of-fact way in which infanticide, rape, miscegenation, lynching, as well as the daily maneuverings of slave life are all depicted. It’s with this same matter-of-fact style that his characters engage in monumental religious hypocrisy, using the same Christian logic to justify slavery by extolling their own kindness. And while I’m not convinced that satire is the only thing that Mr. Bradshaw aspires to in this play, these ironies yield a handful of funny/uncomfortable moments. In fact, it seems as though he doesn’t need to do much more than portray human beings as they are, at their very worst, in order to touch upon the absurdity of satire.

    Happily, in the case of Thomas Bradshaw, the whole ‘playwright provocateur ignites the stage’ thing is PR jargon that only tells part of the story.  

    The play is set in motion when the kindly master of a southern plantation dies, willing his slaves to be freed. His wife, Elizabeth, however has no intention of freeing her slaves. She succeeds in unleashing the inner slave-master from within her kind abolitionist brother-in-law, David, whom she agrees to marry. Lia Aprile plays Elizabeth as a Scarlett O’Hara-type with a penchant for black cock. Jeff Biehl plays David as a villain with little self-knowledge, whose allegiances shift like the wind over Tara. Sadrina Johnson plays Charlotte, a young slave woman, with sympathy and dignity.

    The play however, revolves around the house-slave, Benjamin, a character inspired by the story of Henry Box Brown, a 19th Century Virginia slave who escaped by mailing himself to Philadelphia. The most compelling aspect of Erwin E. A. Thomas’ portrayal of Benjamin is the way he has of standing as though trying to minimize his stature. He seems to know that his survival depends on his ability to undercut his own manhood in the face of his white male owners. Concurrently, his face is etched with a look of wide-eyed and dull-witted confusion and innocence, reminiscent of the slave depictions of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Butterfly McQueen. However, Thomas’ portrayal of Benjamin is informed less by the stereotype of Uncle Tom than it is by the manifestation of a necessity to survive and a daring to hope. It’s a complicated, richly developed physical performance. His nervous shaking hand is an inspired touch, and the deep Paul Robeson resonance of his speaking voice merely adds to a thoroughly committed performance.

      That the playwright has enough insight into his audience to know where to plunge the knife, and at what point to turn it, is a great asset to this play.
    As a play, “Southern Promises” owes as much to the Beaumarchaisian upstairs/downstairs sex comedy as it does to the slave narratives of “The Great Escape,” which is cited as a source. It’s a kind of “Marriage of Figaro” with plantation slavery replacing the mist of French Revolution. Mr. Bradshaw and his director, Jose Zayas, succeed in making it all seem so fantastical that one would never believe it if so much of it weren’t based in truth. This satirizing of slavery could very well have been Mr. Bradshaw’s genius, and a more original source for provocation, except that so much of it is played seriously, and so few of us are ready to laugh at slavery.

    Of course, menacing the sensibilities of the largely white, reliably sympathetic audience that attended “Southern Promises” is hardly an act of unwanted sadism. Most audiences are willingly complicit so long as the play does its job as a play. That the playwright has enough insight into his audience to know where to plunge the knife, and at what point to turn it, is a great asset to this play. That the plot takes one or two turns that seem ineffective or unnecessary is arguably splitting hairs, especially for a relatively young playwright like Mr. Bradshaw. His ability to handle our emotions is skillful, even as his handling of his story is not quite at the same level.

    SEPTEMBER 15, 2008

    Post a comment on "Southern Promises"