"What about the shit — how messy and shit-stained the past was?" Or, as another character puts it more politely: History is "messy and inconvenient." Thomas Gibbons' A House With No Walls, an intriguing but too tidy piece of reality-based theater, could do with a little more messiness.
House takes on a true Philadelphia controversy: the plan to build part of the Liberty Bell Center on the site of George Washington's home — specifically, quarters that housed nine of Washington's slaves. Should these quarters be covered up and forgotten, dwarfed by a temple celebrating "liberty" that casts a convenient shadow on ugly reality? Or should the quarters be reconstructed as a separate museum, a look into America's racist past?
Advocating for the left (that is, the reconstructed quarters) is Salif Camara (Johnnie Hobbs Jr.), a powerful speaker with a canny sense of PR. For a touch of surprise, the right is represented by an African-American woman — Cadence Lane (Tracy Conyer Lee). Lane, a history professor at the local elite university (Penn, presumably), is every bit as camera- and sound-bite-ready as Camara, and her support is courted by both Republicans and Democrats. Camara is about holding America's feet to the fire; to him, Lane is a sellout. Lane feels the black community is held back by its relentless obsession with the past; to her, Camara's radicalism is hobbling their progress.
Playwright Gibbons, who is nothing if not ambitious, juxtaposes this contemporary story against a secondary plot — the escape, in the late 1790s, of Oney Judge (Lavita Shaurice), one of Washington's slaves, who has, touchingly, taught herself to read.
These are gripping stories, and Gibbons' research and evenhandedness can't be faulted.
But the characters feel less like people than a compendium of ideals, and every conversation in House sounds like prepared debate on a middlebrow public radio show. Even a third plotline — the improbable romance between Lane and professor Allen Rosen (Seth Reichgott) — presents a political battleground: She's black; he's white and Jewish. (Both actors succumb to the clichés of these characters. Reichgott is all neurotic twitches; Lee is the essence of preternatural poise. Among the cast, only Hobbs succeeds in making his role something more than an archetype.) The best political plays, from Brecht to Kushner, are wickedly wry and full of loose ends. House, neatly presented and throbbing with dogged earnestness, needs more humor.
Seth Rozin has given House an elegant staging, and I especially liked the scenic design (by Rozin and Peter Whinnery, who also did lighting) that suggests old and new, and perfectly captures the conservative brick-and-glass look that is the current vogue in Philly's cultural institution architecture. There's enough in House to keep the audience interested. But too often, the play feels like the kind of preachy museum piece both sides would want to avoid.