"Fiercely intelligent" is a phrase that can be overused, could be considered cliché. It's also the perfect phrase to describe A House with No Walls, the thoughtful yet entertaining play now at the New Repertory Theatre. Although partially based on the true story of Ona Judge, a slave of George Washington, the story is much more about how history does and should shape racial identity and whether or not honoring the past may mean stunting our possible future growth, both as individuals and as a society.
Written by Thomas Gibbons (who also wrote Permanent Collection and Bee-luther-hatchee), A House with No Walls captures the argument that erupts when the possible site of the slave quarters of Washington's executive mansion turns out to be at the front door of the nearly complete American Museum of Liberty. Activist Salif Camara (Johnny Lee Davenport) wants the building reconstructed as a memorial, while historian/best-selling author Cadence Lane (Riddick Marie) feels dwelling on the past means that African-Americans constantly think of themselves as victims and therefore hold themselves back.
The play bounces between that present day struggle and, in the waning days of the Washington presidency, the struggle of Ona Judge (Kortney Adams) herself for freedom. Is Salif honoring the past and Ona or exploiting her, making a future case for reparations for slavery or even just press coverage and glory for himself? Or is Cadence a sell-out, a black Republican who's trying to deny her race in order to be "white enough" to make it in the upper echelons of academia and politics? And is it hypocritical for a museum of American liberty to even exist given the still-echoing chains of slavery and the injustices that persisted well after emancipation?
If all this sounds heavy, well, it is. A House without Walls deals in weighty subject matter after all, and you'll debating its themes not just on the way to the car after the show but in the lobby at intermission. But this is no dry civics lesson. Playwright Gibbons is just as interjects humor and pathos at all the right moments, with Michael Kaye (from Silence last season at New Rep), as a fellow historian dealing with white guilt and growing sexual tension with old flame Cadence, and Stephen Russell in a potpourri of roles often the prime talented moodlifters.
Another barb that might be lobbed at the script is that the scenes with Salif or Cadence are incredibly talky. True enough, but the tidal waves of dialogue are near-Stoppardian gems and always ring true as words that these strong-willed people would indeed speak. In addition to humor, Russell and director Lois Roach smartly break up all that talk with Ona's story, which is full of quiet moments and emotions conveyed more by looks than words. Even while Cadence and Salif spar on the main part of Cristina Todesco's beautifully evocative modern-glass-meets-historical-decay set, you're hard pressed to take your eyes off Adams as Ona carefully packing her few treasures as she prepares to journey on the underground railroad or Jason Bowen as Ona's brother Austin as he carves a model ship and dreams of one day being a sailor. Bowen and Adams are so naturally and entirely their characters that if it weren't for how good the other actors are, you might resent that the duo aren't featured in more scenes. Adams in particular nearly glows with her character's emotions, using subtle movements and facial expressions to convey more than any monologue.
Good thing that Davenport as Salif and Marie as Cadence can hold their own. It's just plain fun to watch these two spit fire at each other and create fully realized people out of what could have been caricatures of the liberal, dashiki-clad activist and the black conservative complete with a Condoleeza hair helmet and power pumps. Salif may be on the side of the liberal angels in his beliefs, but Davenport allows him to have flashes of glee in his press coverage and the political power. And Marie is steely while remaining feminine and together with Adams even pulls off the tricky conceit of Cadence and Ona's mystical connection across time.
With a script and performances this meaty, A House with No Walls demands to be seen, not just because it's smart and entertaining but also because it's universally relevant. How deep a scar slavery left on race relations in the United States is, to paraphrase Cadence, not just the history of black Americans but of all Americans. The question of whether balance and compromise are virtues to be sought after or actually subtle evils extends beyond the question of whether the museum's hall of slavery has enough exhibits on the underground railroad to balance the displays of slave chains and auction blocks. And does honoring your past inevitably mean that you're wallowing in victimhood when it might be better to simply move on or does moving on mean you're denying history and are then doomed to repeat it? When an evening of theater can make philosophical debates so pleasurable, it's a winner.
Presented by the New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, through November 18. November 2 performance is Out @ New Rep night for LGBT audiences that includes post-show reception. Go to www.newrep.org for tickets and information.