Ironies abound, some intentional and some not, in Thomas Gibbons's A House With No Walls. Gibbons has made a specialty of politically-themed plays about Philadelphia, which continues to provide him with no lack of opportunity. In 6221 he explored the city's most infamous modern moment, the 1985 MOVE bombing by Wilson Goode's police that killed 11 Philadelphians, six of them children. (Did anyone notice that Goode was named Philadelphia's Citizen of the Year in 2006? So nice to have a second career.) In Permanent Collection Gibbons took on the snatch-and-grab operation to move the Barnes Foundation to Center City Philadelphia, a larceny still in progress. A House With No Walls, like its predecessors, rakes up the dirt, in this case quite literally.
Gibbons's subject is the controversy surrounding the construction of the new Liberty Bell Center on the former site of George Washington's presidential mansion, which included, of course, the quarters of his nine slaves, one of whom, Oney Judge, messed up his inauguration by running away. Local members of the African-American community who wanted those slaves (and slavery in general) commemorated in our new house of freedom met a cold shoulder from the National Park Service, and controversy ensued.
Cashing in and selling out
The idea of the Bush administration building a shrine to freedom, which it has labored hard to extinguish in this country, would be irony enough. But the politics of memory can be as complicated as the politics of forgetting, and it is upon this confusion that Gibbons's play hinges. He stages it as a confrontation between Salif Camara (played by Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.), a black activist with a more than passing resemblance to the Rev. Al Sharpton in his glory days, and Cadence Lane (Tracey Conyer Lee), who will no doubt call to mind Condoleezza Rice. Salif wants to recreate the slave quarters as they were, though no trace of the building or its design remains. Cadence, a black academic who has written a biography of Oney Judge and who serves on the historical commission advising the Park Service, wants a tasteful inscription that won't spoil liberty's party or keep slavery's descendants brooding on their past rather than looking to the future. In short, Salif is cashing in; Cadence is selling out.
Against these operators, Gibbons sets Oney herself, in flashback sequences in which she is induced to seek her freedom by a Quaker abolitionist, Tobias Humphreys (Seth Reichgott, who also doubles hilariously as a member of academia's new poverty class). Oney is all virtue, as Salif and Cadence — whatever trace of their more youthful idealistic selves they seek to preserve — are all con. This is the play's essential dynamism as well as its limitation. Though Salif and Cadence spar entertainingly, exposing one another's hypocrisies, they can do nothing in the end but serve their new master — political correctness — in Solomonically dividing the corpse of the past to serve the complacency of the present. As a play of ideas and a rumination on the use and abuse of cultural memory, A House With No Walls hits its marks deftly if with no great subtlety; what it foregoes, perhaps inevitably, is any real penetration of character.
Ironies, intentional and otherwise
The cast, which also includes the veteran Tim Moyer as well as newcomers Lavita Shaurice and Bowman Wright, is uniformly good. The spare but ingenious sets designed by Peter Whinnery and Seth Rozin keep the action flowing and the time sequences properly framed, and Seth Rozin directs with a practiced and capable hand.
The production, however, contains some ironies of its own. Gibbons's Philadelphia trilogy ultimately concerns the denial of African-American space in our culture, literally as well as symbolically. In 6221, MOVE's Osage Avenue encampment is blown to pieces. In Permanent Collection, a black wheeler-dealer plays race traitor, trying to exploit the Barnes gallery deeded in trust to an African-American institution, Lincoln University. In A House With No Walls, whose very title evokes the paradox of black cultural space in America, the question is what, if anything, the descendants of slavery can finally "own."
These are, of course, deeply important questions, and they need to be asked, as Gibbons has, again and again. But the current production itself is partly funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the very organization that has usurped control of the Barnes from Lincoln University, and made it an adjunct of Philadelphia's white power establishment. How's that for irony?