Emily Guendelsberger Emily is senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club, the Guardian and other fine publications.
HAY THERE: The cast of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, left to right: Robert Carlton III, Langston Darby, Lia Simon, Caroline Crocker, Matthew Weil, Tiffany Bacon, Ryan Sanders, Katie Croyle, Nia Ali, Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez, Steven Wright, Paule Turner, Mari
It’s the first table read of EgoPo Classic Theatre’s new production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and we’re finally ready to start. The 15 actors, roughly evenly scattered along the skin-color continuum, have introduced themselves. Director Lane Savadove has spoken about why and how this production will be done in this particular way, touching on post-apartheid South Africa, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Philadelphia magazine’s recent-at-the-time “Being White in Philly” cover story. Co-adaptor Glenn Odom gave a brief history lesson. And now it’s time to read. The first characters to speak are two Southern gentlemen, haggling over the price of the titular slave Tom; one claims Tom is worth more because he’s so steady and honest.
Actor Langston Darby doesn’t hesitate: “You mean honest, as niggers go,” he replies.
Three lines in: There’s the first entrance of The Awkward, a feeling of discomfort so strong and specific to this production that it demands a capitalized name. Because the two actors who will eventually be dressed in full antebellum-gentleman gear are black, and the actor who will eventually be led off in shackles is white. And that slur coming out of that mouth in that context with that accent strikes a chord that’s loud, dissonant and unique.
The actors are professionals; there’s no hesitation or raised eyebrows. But as the closest thing to an audience at that first reading, I find The Awkward to be an ear-burning, unignorable presence.
Shortly after the opening exchange, white actress Caroline Crocker, as Uncle Tom’s wife, Chloe, has several of the first lines written out in the dialect Stowe transcribed syllable by syllable from her interviews with Kentucky slaves: “Mammy’ll give her baby somefin, by and by. Now, Mas’r George, you jest take off dem books, and I’ll have de first griddle full of cakes on your plates in less dan no time.” Crocker, unflinching, commits to the text. Awkward.
Uncle Tom’s sons, Sam and Andy, crack wise, sounding very much like the direct precursors of Amos and Andy that they are. Awkward.
The graces of “the quadroon woman” are extolled. Awkward.
So: The Awkward is like a spider shown to an arachnophobe in exposure therapy.
No: The Awkward is really like a festering boil, and it needs to be poked for healing to occur.
No: The Awkward is actually something that’s been poked by well-meaning white people enough goddamn times, will you please just leave it alone because it’s kind of tired, Jesus Christ.
Which is it? If a theater piece tries to make an audience feel uncomfortable in a new and specific way and it succeeds, does that mean it’s a success? Is there any way to do a race-swapped Uncle Tom’s Cabin that’s not a complete disaster?
It depends on who you ask, and when.
“Race-swapped Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” divorced from context, is an incredibly easy target. You don’t even have to shoot the fish in a barrel; they shoot themselves. It’s not like Savadove isn’t extremely aware of that. Just Googling it turns up some pretty awful blackface posters from the 19th-century days when Uncle Tom’s Cabin made the rounds as a popular minstrel show — when vaudeville spun off many of Stowe’s characters into comic exaggerations of themselves that have haunted American culture for more than a century.
That’s the goal of the production, according to Savadove: taking these characters that have turned into uncomfortable stereotypes and trying to reimbue them with their original humanity.
“Our theatrical imaginations are amazing — we can imagine a sword onto a ballpoint pen if you tell someone that’s what it is.” He hopes that audiences, after the initial half-hour or so, will be just as willing to imagine a Southern plantation owner onto a black man or a slave child onto a very tall white actor as they are a New Orleans mansion onto bales of hay and an enormous American flag backdrop. (As a white woman who’s seen the dress rehearsal, I can say honestly that this basically did happen for me.)
But he’s also hoping it goes beyond just storytelling. Even temporarily accepting a play’s reality, he says, “really changes ... our thought DNA. It changes the way we experience and think about things. Though we won’t be conscious of the cross-racial casting all the time for the next two hours of the show, it will be changing the way we experience the world — I really do believe it will.”
Savadove continues: “It also forces the white audience members to experience slavery in a way they’ve never experienced it before, and the black audiences to experience the institution of slavery in a way they’ve never experienced before. … If you’re empathizing with someone of the same race in this play, you’re empathizing with someone with a very different history than you in America,” and vice versa. He emphasizes how Stowe lent humanity to all her characters — she demonizes the society rather than the people born into it on either side.
Theater is a bit like professional empathizing, anyway: “I think good directing is not based in race or gender or religion — our biggest goal is that we have to empathize with whatever identity we’re directing. We have to — if we can’t do that, then we’re strapped, and I should never direct anything but white Jewish Philadelphia plays for the rest of my life.”
Would Savadove be interested in directing a version of the play cast the way Stowe would have pictured the characters?
“I wasn’t, and I had that choice — our adaptation of the play is independent of how you cast the play. I could literally do this play again with —” He pauses, thoughtfully. “I have to say, it actually could be really fun to do a traditional-cast version of this in rep with this cross-cast version to see how the mechanisms of that cross-casting work on our emotions.”
It wouldn’t be the first time EgoPo’s taken the “experiment” part of “experimental theater” to the lengths of actually having a control group. In 2005, Savadove and EgoPo, then based in New Orleans, arrived in Philly to prepare for a run at Fringe with their production of The Maids x 2 — an all-female staging of the three-person Jean Genet play followed by a dinner break, then an all-male staging of the same play. (The show later was reviewed by the New York Times: “Mr. Savadove is not just being self-indulgent; the juxtaposition of the two versions is starkly illuminating, if you can stand the wait.”)
The company was staying in Bucks County, where Savadove’s parents live — he grew up in the area. “One morning on the way in to the theater, we all noticed our cell phones were on the blink. … Every news van in the city was out in front of our theater space, and they took us down to the basement and showed us CNN.” They’d been working so hard that they hadn’t been aware of Katrina yet.
They opened the show on time, and performed knowing they might not have homes to go back to. ATM cards became useless overnight as their local banks in New Orleans shut down. “We were stranded here,” says Savadove. “Most of us lost our homes — my home was flooded, and the ceiling of the theater collapsed on itself.” When it was clear that they couldn’t go home again, Savadove decided to re-establish EgoPo here.
It was the stark differences between doing theater in the two cities, he says, that made him interested in “starting a conversation about race.” (Like just about all the people interviewed for this story, Savadove qualifies that his experience is his alone and he can’t speak for anyone but himself, and also that as a white guy he inherently lacks an essential chunk of information about race relations. However!) “In my experience of it, though, [New Orleans] is a much more integrated city than Philadelphia is. I came into much more contact with people of different backgrounds than myself in daily life and in my theater and teaching work.” Growing up in Philadelphia, he’d always felt clear lines between white and black neighborhoods. “The less that we experience people who are different from us, the more we’re going to misunderstand and judge those others. And I feel like Philadelphia has notoriously suffered” from that segregation, he says.
“Of all places for racial integration, you’d think theater would be a place for it to happen.” He blames deep socioeconomic issues, stemming from the screwed-up Philly school system (the proposed “doomsday budget” of which would cut all arts programs), for a “segregated theatrical world” that parallels the segregated economic and educational systems.
So, he says, “There was no way I was going to go, ‘Hey, Philadelphia! Here’s 12 great slave roles for the African-American actors in our city.’ Because it’s not a great acting city as far as integration goes. There’s not a lot of cross-racial casting going on.”
James Ijames knows plenty about the stereotypes that sprang from Stowe’s book — Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the first thing on the syllabus for his “Race on the Stage” class in Temple’s theater department. “We explore a lot of different plays, and I start with that one because of the lasting stereotypes that it created that we still struggle with in different ways.” It’s the perfect example, he says, of “how misconceptions about culture and race can be created on the stage and then perpetuated.”
Some of the major stereotypes:
Mammy: “The caretaker, the asexual female, she’s bossy, she runs the home, she runs the plantation, she’s respected as much as a slave can be; historically, she’s probably the person that the master is sleeping with. A woman who is in charge but not in charge. That particular characterization of black femininity is not as clear now, but sometimes I can see hints of it in something Tyler Perry does or on TV shows: these powerful black women that have no interior life.”
Uncle Tom: “This noble, faithful Christian man who seems to be faithful to his master because that’s what good Christians do. That’s something that I still definitely see all the way down the line.”
Pickaninny: “That’s Topsy and some of the children of the plantation that aren’t quite old enough to work yet, so they’re left to their own devices. There’s usually a wild shock of hair on the head, very red lips, huge eyes — always being chased by crocodiles for some strange reason.”
Sambo: “He’s sort of shiftless and doesn’t want to work — though in my opinion the Sambo [character] is actually about resistance” rather than laziness.
Countless others have spun off. “The catch-22 of some of these stereotypes is that the intention is very good,” says Ijames. “[Stowe’s] heart is in the absolute right place. She wanted to give these slaves a sense of being iconic — and it worked a little too well, to the disadvantage of black people later on, I think.
“All these characters are variations on the same thing: In American culture, it is often perceived that black people don’t have an interior life, that we’re just what you see on the surface. We’re soulful or we dance well, but there’s nothing going on underneath. That’s how stereotypes become dangerous: when they start to become the primary version of the story.”
Ijames is primarily a working actor; he teaches as an adjunct professor at Temple, he says, “mostly because they offered me a class that was all about things that I’m really interested in.” He’s had none of the problems getting cast in nonstereotypical roles that Savadove mentioned. (In fact, I’ve read his name in so many playbills that I feel a need to mention that his last name rhymes with “rhymes” and not “hi, James.”) Ijames notes that he obviously can’t speak for all black artists, but says Philly theater has been very good to him.
He points out that Philadelphia has four to five large, nonprofit regional theaters and a plethora of small and mid-size ones. “And when you have that many theaters, multiple ones are going to be doing shows where there is black voice or black presence” in any given season. “It’s not so much of, ‘Let’s give something to the black people,’ it’s more like, ‘This is an opportunity to grab a demographic that Oklahoma! won’t grab.’”
The numbers back Ijames up. In 2009, one of the most-talked-about statistics in the Cultural Alliance’s influential “Research Into Action” report was this: “Both African-Americans and Hispanics were more culturally active than whites. This is particularly important, given that Greater Philadelphia’s population is forecasted to grow by 550,000 between 2000 and 2020, and virtually ALL of that growth is projected to come from people of color.” As of the 2010 census, fewer than two in five Philadelphians were white, though you wouldn’t be able to extrapolate that from the average Broad Street audience. In other words, Philadelphia theaters starting to try a little harder to appeal to the city’s African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans isn’t charity or political correctness: It’s pure economics — a survival strategy.
Even assuming that all the audience members are white and the intentions are good, “Then why couldn’t you have done that with black people playing the roles?” Ijames asks. “The message sent, sadly, I think, is that it takes a white person to humanize a black stereotype. And I know that’s not what [Savadove] is trying to do. … But what I see is, ‘I want to humanize these characters, and the way that I feel like I can do that is by having white people do the job.’ Which is slightly problematic.”
Ijames is now in the middle of auditioning for the 2013-2014 season, he says, and it looks like a really promising one, with programming going beyond “what a friend of mine calls ‘the August Wilson slot.’” All the larger theaters are doing at least one production with many or central roles for actors of colors, and a few are doing more than one. None is a slave play.
Ijames says that Savadove “mentioned something to me about the lack of theater roles for black artists and the reason he wanted to reverse the casting is because he didn’t want to walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, I want you to play a slave.’ I guess my question then is, ‘Why do a play with slaves?’ If you’re uncomfortable asking a black person to play a slave, don’t do a play with slaves in it.”
Lia Simon, a just-graduated black actress who plays Ophelia St. Clare, was actually the teaching assistant for Ijames’ class at Temple when she heard about this production. Would she have auditioned for a traditional casting of Uncle Tom’s Cabin? She has to think about it. “I think being fresh out of college, I would have auditioned,” she finally says, though she would have first sussed out the director’s motivations for doing a slavery play. Last year at Temple, she says, she played a slave role in Pudd’nhead Wilson, an adaptation of the Mark Twain switched-at-birth story of a white child raised as a slave and a black child raised as a spoiled white aristocrat. “She was a deep character, and that’s what helped me think of it as not just a slave play.”
Nia Ali, a black actress who plays the angelic child Little Eva, is 19, just off her sophomore year at Rowan University. What roles has she played so far? “Last year, I did Flyin’ West — it’s about slavery, actually.” Her character, an escaped slave, was much deeper than the sort of stereotypical role Savadove didn’t want to offer. After considering for a bit, she says she probably wouldn’t have auditioned for a traditional casting of the play.
Steven Wright, who plays Augustine St. Clare, is just coming off another play in this very same space that required formal wear from the mid-1800s — he just starred in Plays and Players’ The America Play, “a remarkable story of an African-American man who looks just like Abraham Lincoln and can be shot by would-be John Wilkes Booth for a small fee.” (“June 9 I’ll be able to leave the 19th century,” he laughs. “Honestly, I like the vests and top hats and some of the coats — I can do without suspenders, I’ve realized.”) He’s been racially cross-cast many times since he started his career in 2000. “That was back in the day where at the end of every backstage posting, all ethnicities were encouraged to attend, this short-lived realm of racially blind casting. … It goes in ebbs and waves.”
Wright says he would have auditioned for a traditional-cast version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin if called because the story interests him, though he hasn’t yet played a slave role. “I’m not really interested in playing those roles, depending on whom I’m working with.” He sighs. “To be quite frank, I mean — we all go to the same schools and we learn the same techniques and the same building blocks for taking our talent and turning it into something we can use in the professional world. … It’s really unappealing to go through all that and then look at the idea of only playing slaves, pimps or thugs.”
As first playing the slave trader Haley and later Simon Legree, Langston Darby has some of the nastiest language and violence in the play, including both that first Awkward-summoning line and the play’s last non-narrator line: “What a fuss, for a dead nigger!” over Tom’s body. (A 161-year-old spoiler alert?)
Though you couldn’t have known from watching him, he says the ugly words bothered him at first. It wasn’t saying them himself — he is, you know, an actor and all. The problem at first was “just with hearing it all the time. Your ears are just so attuned — you hear stuff like that and you’re just, like… ” — he cocks his head like he’s heard a dog whistle. “What the heck was that?”
It’s gotten less distracting the more they rehearse, he says. His big acting challenge was figuring out how to empathize with Stowe’s most horrendous characters, finding a way to play them with more subtlety than a Disney villain.
Darby was one of the few people at the first read of the play who had actually read Stowe’s book, and he went back to it to look for any background information about Legree that could help him understand the monstrous sadist better. But he noticed something interesting. “Now when I’m checking the book for something and I imagine Tom, I imagine Ed.” (That’s Ed Swidey, the white actor who’s created a dignified, highly moral Uncle Tom for this production.) Darby laughs. “That’s what Tom looks like in my head now. And I’ll realize I’m having that thought, and I’ll have to examine that thought.” It’s a strange feeling.
It sounds like exactly the sort of thing Savadove hoped to create. But they’ll have to wait and see whether the effect pops up in the audience after only a couple hours, too, or whether people are showing up to watch the production burn itself down. Either way, though, initial ticket sales at least imply that people are going to show up.
“It’s our job to make really exciting events, take chances: like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to miss that,’” says Savadove. “If we keep going to theater and seeing exactly what we expect to see, we’re just not going to need to go anymore.”
He pauses. “Theater can get so obsessed with keeping its audience that it maybe doesn’t take as many risks as it needs to. I lost everything in 2005. Everything. And so I don’t really have anything to lose, except to not make theater as exciting as I think it should be. Because I’m back home again after losing everything, I gotta take risks; it’s my role, it’s —” He interrupts himself. “And by ‘I,’ I mean EgoPo. We need to take risks.”
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