"A House With No Walls" has all requisite ingredients for a compelling night of theater: An incendiary subject exposing historical hypocrisy; original, unexpected characters; and a scope spanning centuries. Best, it shines a light under a mossy bushel. It will start dialogue — and that's why we do theater.
But like that crack in the Liberty Bell, it just doesn't yet ring completely true.
I left Curious Theatre's unusual "rolling world premiere" feeling politely grateful that it has brought this story to the stage. But when you are talking about the abomination of slavery and reparations and affirmative action and white liberal guilt as an exploitable asset, you don't want to leave audiences feeling "politely grateful." You want to have to scrape them up off the floor.
Excepting a triumphant performance by Simone St. John as a real-life Philadelphia slave who escaped from George Washington in 1797, the play left me educated but unmoved. Was it unconvincing acting or didactic writing or a combination of both? In places, both. The play's message and intent are above reproach, but as presented, neither its politics nor its relationships make for convincing drama. And it is fatally without humor.
There are two interweaving stories: One, in the present day, about the controversy surrounding the opening of a new museum honoring American liberty on the very spot where Washington's slave quarters once stood. The other, a strangely antiseptic depiction of slavery void of brutality, shows how Oney escaped through the underground railroad.
The play's essential irony is that the very men who signed the Declaration of Independence were all slave owners — and they saw no paradox in that. How then can we now celebrate "American liberty" on where nine slaves were once relegated to a space 8 1/2- feet square?
Activist Salif (Tyee Tilghman) wants the slave quarters reconstructed as a historical reminder. Cadence Lane (Jada Roberts), a conservative black historian turned hired gun for the far right, sees that as "a monument to our helplessness." These characters are such polar opposites separately as to be contrived together.
They argue. They argue again. Then they argue some more. It doesn't feel spontaneous. Their long point-counterpoint exchanges are factual but that's not theater. It's debate. And at nearly 2 1/2 hours, a long and preachy one. And when butts are squirming in the Acoma Center's wooden seats, we're talking a cacophony of squirming.
In between, there's a contrived interracial romance and a cynical subplot about backdoor political shenanigans, but that never catches fire, either.
A most compelling aspect is a sound design by Iaeden Hovorka that becomes a character unto itself, nicely complemented by Jacob Welch's lighting design. But there's a gratuitous overreliance on heavy fog. Forget the state's indoor smoking ban, it ought to be banishing that stuff.
Director Donnie L. Betts has assembled a fine cast but I'll bet Tilghman is tiring of successive roles asking him primarily to rant. In the thankless role of brittle apologist Cadence (she's called everything from Aunt Jemima to the house Negro), the very talented Roberts doesn't seem to have gotten much help.
Gibbons' language is stunning in spots ("those shadows had blood once, those shadows had bones!"), but stilted in others. He makes nice points about how history can be messy and inconvenient, and the symbolism behind his play's title is quite effective.
Curious is affiliated with the National New Play Network's "Continued Life" program, which means this play is being staged by at least four different member companies around the country (this is the third). The obvious benefit is that Gibbons can take lessons from each staging and apply them to the next.
That's a good thing, because he's not quite there yet. His play wants to build toward a climactic moment of connection between Cadence and the heroic slave girl Oney, some new understanding (or anger) in Cadence acknowledging the horrors her ancestors suffered.
Their two stories play out simultaneously on the same stage, but like the play itself, these two just barely miss making that connection.