Everyone uses slavery as a tool.
Dear Mr. Mayor: American slavery is tough to talk about. Which is why I'm grateful to playwright Thomas Gibbons for his new play, A House With No Walls, which premiered recently at the InterAct on Sansom Street.
Productions of the play are also opening in Boston, South Florida and Denver. But Philadelphia is the real home of A House With No Walls. Gibbons sets his play on Independence Mall, where the actual President's House once stood — where a new museum has yet to be built.
The real President's House is stalled because public conversation about slavery is hard, and potentially perilous. Right now, there's a beautiful set of architectural drawings for the museum, which have yet to make it past your desk.
Which is why I'd like you to see this play, Mr. Mayor. And any politican who needs to know that ordinary people can talk about slavery. Gibbons takes his play where politicians fear to tread, and he charts a path through America's most sensitive subject.
In the case of the President's House, it is especially sensitive. We now know that the National Park Service buried the fact that George and Martha Washington kept nine slaves in defiance of the laws of Pennsylvania. That some slaves were likely shackled, and probably all were held against their will. (I've never met someone who'd volunteer for slavery. Have you?)
And we now know about the slaves who escaped the president, among them Oney Judge, Martha's personal chambermaid (played tenderly in A House With No Walls by Lavita Shaurice). Onstage, Judge's struggle to free herself is literally at the play's center. Surrounding this historical figure are a cast of modern characters; some are based vaguely on real people in Philadelphia's current political drama; all have an agenda.
The angry black activist, Salif Camara — played by Johnnie Hobbs Jr. and based very loosely on lawyer/activist Michael Coard — uses slavery to inflame black rage.
Salif's counterpoint is Cadence Lane (played by Tracey Conyer Lee), a cafe-au-lait woman Republican called the "House Negro." For her, Judge is a precursor of her own boot-strapping self, an antidote to Camara's "cult of victimology."
Historian Allen Rosen — played by Seth Reichgott and based very loosely on historian Ed Lawler Jr. — overcomes his emotional impotence by documenting Judge's escape.
Tim Moyer plays three related parts: a modern-day park ranger, a contemporary bureaucrat and a hilarious, glad-handing "George Washington."
Finally, Bowman Wright plays Austin Judge, Oney's half brother, who longs for freedom but is too frightened to seize it.
Everyone uses slavery as a tool. Just like real life. But unlike real life, here Gibbons manages to untangle the web of self-interest and re-create a history of slavery — and freedom — that everyone values.
Art imitates life; here's an opportunity for life to imitate art. Can we talk civilly about slavery? Sure we can.
Please see A House with No Walls, and join me for a panel discussion on Saturday, Feb. 3, with playwright Thomas Gibbons, Michael Coard and Ed Lawler Jr. For tickets, call 215-568-8079.
Don't worry, Mr. Mayor, I'll save you a seat.