I confess, I was looking forward to some controversy.
The news that EgoPo Classic Theatre’s adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly — now subtitled “An Unfortunate History” — would feature white actors playing black characters (and vice-versa) prompted a press frenzy (including last week’s City Paper cover story).
Theater doesn’t receive enough attention, in my admittedly biased view. Even plays featuring polarizing ethical issues or flaunting nudity, sex, and violence seldom rate media notice. I was ready for some heated debate, maybe a flare-up like the biracial Cheerios commercial internet kerfluffle.
What I was not prepared for, however, was a dull play.
Director Lane Savadove’s decision — based in part, he told CP, on an unwillingness to ask black actors to play slave roles — is no big deal, perhaps because his young black actors (veteran Steve Wright excepted) don’t play Southern aristocrats with antebellum grace and authority, and his white actors seem tentative until Katie Croyle bursts forth in fiery rebellion. Over two hours in, though, I wondered why that passion hadn’t emerged sooner.
The racial flip has little emotional impact. That I began musing during Act I about alternative casting plans reveals how unengaging Savadove and Glenn Odom’s adaptation turned out. How about all-black, all-white, or color-blind casting to highlight how slavery was not a racial issue, but a human issue, I wondered during repetitive scene changes. What if the slaves were played by women and the owners by men? Cast puppets or puppies — anybody, please. Just hold my attention.
The play begins with bold, inventive, “experimental” staging — actors portraying some sort of slow-motion picnic as we enter the theater (which occasionally will suddenly speed up to a sound like accelerating audio tape), direct-address choral narration and sudden detours to present characters’ backstories, Savadove and actor-choreographer Paule Turner’s hay-covered stage dominated by a huge 50-star (i.e., modern) American flag. But it becomes an interminable furniture-moving scurry to accommodate dozens and dozens of short expository scenes. Nearly all 15 actors play multiple roles, coming and going in a blur, introducing undefined characters written more for faithfulness to Stowe’s novel than effective storytelling.
Eventually, core tales emerge: ex-slave George (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) tries to reunite with wife Eliza (Maria Konstantinidis) and son Harry (Rachel O‘Hanlon-Rodriguez), who flee Kentucky to avoid being sold into the deep South. Uncle Tom (Ed Swidey) is a cipher the first two hours, but his odyssey — from Kentucky through ownership by reluctant New Orleans slaveowner Augustine St. Clare (Wright) and then Simon Legree (Langston Darby, more blusterer than brute) — becomes central in the end, though stripped of Stowe’s overt Christianity (no Jesus visions here).
After taking a long time to gel, the play’s relatively exciting final half-hour feels rushed, particularly since that’s where the production’s point of view — such as it is, sans connection to modern times — finally emerges. For much of the nearly 3-hour play, we’re subjected to a messy, tedious costume melodrama told in short scenes, dancing around a thin, one-sided conversation about slavery.
“I don’t know why I would be rated a monster,” one slaver remarks, “for doing what everyone else does.” No one answers. Even young Eva’s (Nia Ali) saccharine affection for her slaves and St. Clare’s blithe uneasiness with his inherited human property emerge late. Barely articulated thoughts about slavery pop up — e.g., Northerners like St. Clare’s cousin Ophelia (Lia Simon) are disgusted by Southerners’ treatment of slaves, but are equally disgusted by the slaves themselves — but they never feel real, because we’re always being shoved into the next scene.
In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The King and I, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin ballet performed by Siamese children condenses and distorts events but expresses a genuine reaction to slavery. EgoPo faithfully transcribes Stowe’s story, yet fails to articulate a point of view beyond Stowe’s tidy condemnation. Over 160 tumultuous years later, both we and the book deserve more.
Through June 9, $25-$32, 1714 Delancey Place, 267-273-1414, egopo.org.
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