Philadelphia is a city with a long history of racial tension, one whose roots lie in the very foundations of American democracy. In 2002, when it was publicly revealed that the new Liberty Bell Center was to be built on the foundations of George Washington's home, (with its entrance lying right over the site where his slave quarters had once stood) this history took on newly symbolic proportions. Celebration of the Liberty Bell, a symbol of revolutionary freedom and an emblem of the abolitionist cause, was threatening to mask the more painful reality of slavery.
In A House With No Walls, playwright Thomas Gibbons uses this debate as a springboard for the exploration of a larger conflict, one which the play's dramatic narrative will seek to explore (if not entirely resolve). The conflict takes place between two characters, both African-American, who are brought together by the Liberty Bell controversy. Cadence Lane is a successful academic with a new, staunchly conservative book on the shelves. Salif Camara is an ultra liberal, afro-centric political activist. Their story is interwoven with that of one of Washington's slaves, Oney Judge, as she tries to decide whether to risk the escape to freedom. As the play unfolds, the slave quarters and the Liberty Museum become the symbolic ground for a much larger debate.
"What the play is really about, to me," says Gibbons, "is the issue of how much of the African American identity is founded on the experience of slavery, and the further question of how much it should be founded on that." It is a difficult question; one what struggles to find the line between victim-hood and commemoration, honest and hypocrisy, and the need to move forward while acknowledging a painful, and, for many, unforgivable past.
This subject is not new to Gibbons. A House With No Walls marks the third and final installment of his race trilogy, which included his previous two plays, Bee-Luther-Hatchee and Permanent Collection. Both of these deal with issues of racial identity and representation, specifically through the lens of art. In Bee-Luther-Hatchee, which is based on a true event, the role of the artist is given special scrutiny. The play centers on the supposed autobiography of an elderly black woman, whose author turns out to be a middle-aged white man. When the African-American woman who edited and publicized the book discovers the author's lie, a heated debate ensues. For Gibbons, a white man attempting to write about the African American experience, this play covered some very personal ground. "Several times I've had the question posed to me: what makes you think that you as a white man can write about African American characters, and what makes you think you have the right to do that?" Bee-Luther-Hatchee was written in part as a way to explore this question, one that Gibbons takes very seriously.
Gibbons often views his plays as a method for working through ideas and issues that he himself is unsure about. "I'm usually not drawn to writing a play about a subject if I already know what I think about it," says Gibbons, "because then one of the purposes of writing the play is negated. I tend to be drawn toward things that I'm unsure about, and writing the play is a way of finding out what I think at some level."
Ideally, the audience will also enter into this process of discovery. Drama, for Gibbons, has the ability to act out a debate without directly involving the personal stakes of the audience or playwright. This removal, however slight or illusory, has the ability to draw audiences more fully, and more honestly, into the controversy that the play creates. "It just puts it one step removed," says Gibbons. "I've taken part in a lot of talkbacks after plays of mine, in which all kind of potentially raw and unsettling questions are asked, and people say things that you don't always hear people say in public, but they're willing to say it because it's in the context of a discussion about the play and not a discussion about their feelings and their personal experiences."
Even when the playwright does hold a definite position on an issue, says Gibbons, that position must be put aside in order for the play to succeed. "Shaw always said, give the best line to the position you disagree with, which is great advice and I always try to remember that. Because this type of play can very easily become propaganda, if you're simply setting up one side of the argument to be knocked down."
For this reason, viewers who expect A House With No Walls to make up their minds on the Liberty Bell controversy are likely to be disappointed. "People always want to know in my plays," says Gibbons "which character is right and which character is wrong, and I always say, they're both right and they're both wrong at different times, which is maddeningly like real life, I think." Yet, as Gibbons emphatically points out, the play does not limit itself to real life scenarios. A House With No Walls is not a documentary of events, but rather a fiction that explores some very personal and political questions raised by those events. It moves off in its own direction, attempting, like the characters themselves, to make sense of a powerful and ever-present history. Hopefully, it will lead its audience to attempt the same.