note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Actor A … David Scott
Actor B … Ramona Alexander
Actor C … Penny Frank
Actor D … Eddie Mejia
Actor E … Brian Abascal
I’m happy to report that the official opening of Coyote Theatre’s production of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was well-attended (primarily by white middle-aged and senior men and women) --- it had been postponed due to the replacement of an indisposed member of the cast. This is not one of the many dramatizations of Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s still-controversial novel but Floraine Kay and Randolph Curtis Rand’s spin on it, but for all their anger and earnestness they only reinforce what Ms. Stowe proclaimed one hundred and fifty years ago --- Slavery is Bad. Compared to the recent BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE (Zeitgeist Stage) and VENUS (Boston University), both of them thought-provoking dramas on the subject of race and racism, Ms. Kay and Mr. Rand’s show comes up short in both content and technique but it’s worth seeing to ponder yet another topic: what is “black” and what is “white” and what kind of actor should be cast in what role?
I’ve never read Ms. Stowe’s novel nor seen it on a stage but her saintly Uncle Tom, angelic Little Eva, mischievous Topsy, pathetic Eliza and wicked Simon Legree are so much a part of our cultural landscape that enough Americans should know of it (including the famous set-piece where Eliza and her baby flee across the ice to escape their captors). Ms. Kay and Mr. Rand retain all of the novel’s key scenes --- some are played straight, others are burlesqued to make a point --- and they repeatedly stop the show to have the actors lecture the audience on race, recite memoirs written by (real? fictional?) ex-slaves, and debate the value of Ms. Stowe’s novel by quoting from James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde and W. E. DuBois, among others (the final verdict, by the way, is thumbs down). In terms of style, the five members of the cast take turns playing the various characters (with one exception; see below). Personally, I don't see why UNCLE TOM’S CABIN must be revised --- Time has provided the distance needed to see this 19th-century work in a contemporary light, and today’s audiences can put two and two together. Perhaps black artists feel they need to rework Ms. Stowe’s novel before they can embrace it as their own; UNCLE TOM’S CABIN is indeed sentimental, dated and caricatured, but it’s no MEIN KAMPF --- it DID alert white America to the horrors of slavery; as a barnstorming melodrama, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN still retains its extraordinary power, even in the Coyote production --- I dare the most vehement of the novel’s detractors not to be moved by the image of Ramona Alexander as Eliza, clutching her baby and pursued by “bloodhounds”, running in slow-motion down a long winding sheet that suggests a river of ice, her face glowing more and more in ecstasy with each step she takes, all set to the lush, muted sound of a heavenly organ. Some of Ms. Kay and Mr. Rand’s choices are obvious or ham fisted: the minstrel show dance that opens Act One; Topsy suddenly turning rapper; the automaton ending of Act Two. What DOES work is their Act One finale --- the death of Little Eva --- played in period with tear-stinging intensity followed by the actors reciting ALL of the characters’ lines as an overlapping monologue; Victorian sentiment gives way to millennium thought. Had Ms. Kay and Mr. Rand continued in this vein they may have come up with something dazzling. But…they didn’t --- they went for the obvious; thus, my obvious reaction.
Since director Jeffrey Mousseau has his actors playing two races as well as both genders (a script requirement?), I must point out that Brian Abascal, Penny Frank and Eddie Meija are white; David Scott and Ramona Alexander are African-American (Mr. Scott is ivory-complexioned, Ms. Alexander, a medium brown). Each of them are quite good; what’s fascinating is the degree to which each actor is successful in which characterization and who is used where and how. Thus, each actor easily slips into roles, male or female, of his/her own race --- the fascination comes whenever they cross the color lines. (What if Mr. Mousseau had cast an all-black production with his actors wearing white masks when necessary? Now THAT might have been interesting.)
Ms. Alexander comes off best in whatever she plays: aside from her rapping, she is an ideal Topsy --- funny and zippy --- and a coiled snake of a Carrie (both black roles); if playing “white” means speaking clearly san dialect and being uptight or overly intellectual, then Ms. Alexander succeeds very well indeed. Though Mr. Mejia contributes a chilling gospel rant in his turn as Carrie, he and Mr. Abascal resort to stock mannerisms for their slaves --- this is not to say Ms. Alexander and Mr. Scott are better because they have “de pain”, but they are drawing on their social and cultural backgrounds whereas Messrs. Meija and Abascal can only draw on their technique. Mr. Meija makes an endearing ninny out of his Little Eva; Ms. Frank is a touching one in the Act One death scene. Ms. Frank is an acceptable Eliza (part white), but Ms. Alexander gets to step out onto the ice. Ms. Alexander and Mr. Abascal present the tart, prudish Olivia as an eye-rolling old maid; Ms. Frank fleshes her out with warmth under all that starch. Nobody but Ms. Alexander touches Topsy --- nor would I want them to; again, Ms. Alexander’s interpretation is so on the money it would be hard for the others to pay in like coin. The show’s one other lovely image belongs to Mr. Scott as his own Eliza, frozen in flight upstage while his pursuers argue downstage. Mr. Scott, a tall man, eloquently stands motionless in his skirts, one foot en point behind the other, for a good five minutes --- long enough for the image to be etched into your memory. Such is the power of theatre --- you may forget the type of building you were in, who you went with that night, the names of the actors in the cast, etc. but you won’t forget such images as Mr. Scott’s tableau or Ms. Alexander’s ecstatic flight.
Mr. Mousseau’s production is a low-budget one --- a white backdrop, red curtains down front, five chairs, garish lighting --- and the ensemble tends to clunk and rumble along, but, paradoxically, it all wonderfully evokes a 19th century troupe creating a world out of muslin and imagination. (Sincerity wins the day, here.) As a result, I came out wanting to see a production of the original UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (with Ms. Alexander as Topsy). My own reaction may not be what Ms. Kay and Mr. Rand intended but when whatever dust has settled, you’ll find that Ms. Stowe’s novel still stands. It has already withstood one hundred and fifty years of controversy; from what I saw in the Black Box, Ms. Kay and Mr. Rand will not knock down this cabin of brick.