note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Beverly Creasey
I love new plays---especially plays about ideas: Plays which can translate rhetoric into flesh and blood characters. I admired Thomas Gibbons’ BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE, which got a crackerjack production in Boston a few seasons ago. You may remember New Rep’s fine production of his PERMANENT COLLECTION. Now Gibbons has written a play about the legacy of slavery, inspired by actual events.
A HOUSE WITH NO WALLS, up at New Repertory Theatre thru Nov. 18th, examines the question of reparations, among other political hot potatoes, as well as the larger, more painful divide between those who say we bear no responsibility for what our ancestors did, and those who feel amends must be made. I’m surprised Gibbons didn’t include George Santayana’s warning about repeating our historical mistakes. Just about every possible position on history and slavery makes it into WALLS.
Gibbons’ talky set-up (establishing who’s on what side of the issue and what the issue really is) takes all of Act I but you’re rewarded in Act II when the play becomes rich, touching and quite funny (as if everyone, including the playwright, has relaxed). That’s thanks in large part to the soaring direction of Lois Roach and the luminous presence of Kortney Adams, as Martha Washington’s personal slave. Adams provides two breathtaking moments: One, saying a final farewell to her brother (Jason Bowen in a tender performance) and the other, traversing the centuries (I’m getting shivers remembering it) to witness the result of her heroic actions.
The play starts at a construction site. A new museum will celebrate the contribution of our first president and no one seems to know, or care, that they’re building right over the land where Washington’s slaves were quartered, in a tiny box of a building, eight foot square. Enter Johnny Lee Davenport as the firebrand organizer (looking like Mel King in his prime) who sets out to embarrass and pressure the powers that be into acknowledging the slaves. The two historians of the piece who are at odds, personally and professionally, are Riddick Marie and Michael Kaye. Marie gives a powerful performance, accusing the firebrand and his ilk of “grievance politics,” instead of “moving on.” She sarcastically says he’s afflicted with “post-traumatic slave syndrome.”
Kaye gets the gentle heart of his tenured academic just right, especially when he tries to revive an old romance. Stephen Russell is perfection as the charming, self serving bureaucrat responsible for Gibbons’ nifty twist at play’s end. Christina Todesco’s shimmering back walls actually do disappear at one point, for one more interpretation of the title’s meaning. To find out what A HOUSE WITH NO WALLS means to the slaves, you’ll have to see the lovely new Rep Production yourself.