note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Beverly Creasey
What the New Repertory Theatres "Stonewall Jackson's House" has going for it is a rip-snorting performance by Laiona Michelle, who was Cordelia in their production of "King Lear" this fall. When Jonathan Reynolds' play opens, Michelle is a tour guide at the Jackson historical site (dressed as a slave) escorting visitors from room to room, describing Jackson's homelife in tedious detail.
When visiting rednecks get out of hand, she turns on us, offering naughty asides about the idiots who believe the stuff she's spouting. No sooner does she confide to us that this demeaning, dead-end job is getting to her, than two seemingly pleasant white tourists offer to take her home to Ohio with them; she can live on their farm and be their slave. And don't you know, she says OK. Two other white tourists who have heard the transaction want in: they'll offer their services as slaves too, because they weren't making ends meet in rural Alabama. End of Act I.
Then, instead of this compelling, highly provocative situation unfolding in Act II, the actors step out of character and the play folds in on itself, collapsing under its own weight. What drags it under for the next hour and ten minutes is the playwright's diatribe on racism, liberalism and colonialism. When the characters talk, the play is dramatic. When the actors talk (and talk and talk) it's just not. The talking heads in Act II simply end up butting against a stone wall.
The stage only lights up again when Michelle rants and raves, and it's not what she's saying which holds our attention, it's the passion with which she's saying it. The playwright trots out argument after trite argument against affirmative action, the welfare state, a "permanent beggar class". We've heard it all before: the Irish-American who claims his ancestors did the work slaves wouldn't even do; the feminist who claims a;; women are slaves, etc. It's old hat. Arguments do not equal plot. After a session of "competitive misfortune" the debate takes a peculiarly unfunny nose-dive into non-traditional casting hell. It should have been outrageously hilarious to cast one of the White women as a Black male rapper, but by this time we all had lecture-fatigue. This scene and the final scene (where Michelle regresses to thumb sucking infancy) feel like they were tacked on...and for no discernible reason except to bring the play full circle --- from slave to helpless baby --- yuck!
Director Adam Zahler's cast fights the good fight, but they can't prevail against the onslaught of endless rhetoric, no matter how fast they talk. In addition to Michelle's dynamic performance --- in both the dramatic first act and the talking, shouting portion of the play --- Bobbie Steinbach gets in her licks as a posturing diva, and Michael Poisson gets to be paternal to a fault. Tommy Day Carey moves with ease from nasty redneck to needy actor, and Stephanie Dorian makes a marvellously haughty condescending Brit...but good performances can't obscure a threadbare script.
George Wolfe's "The Colored Museum" explores similar terrain, as does Jerry Bisantz' "Boys At Play" (Bisantz even uses the same dubious-author device), but Wolfe and Bisantz don't get tangled up in rhetoric. They let the action of the play carry their ideas. Reynolds' speechifying just gets as thick as kudzu --- so thick you can't see the forest for the trees.