Thomas Gibbons, a local playwright specializing in local controversies, takes on the recent debate about the Liberty Bell Pavilion built on the site of Washington's slaves' quarters. InterAct's premiere of A House With No Walls at the Adrienne addresses a slew of interesting and combustible social issues, although whether these debates yield satisfying theater is itself debatable.
The scene opens with a young woman, a historical person who was one of George Washington's slaves, named Oney Judge (Lavita Shaurice), sitting on a stool struggling to read. She gets as far as L-I-, but eventually gets all the way to LIBERTY, when she escapes. Oney is the subject of a book by Cadence Lane (Tracey Conyer Lee), a glamorous African American neocon whose most recent book, The Race Circus, might well title this play.
Cadence collides with Salif Camara (Johnnie Hobbs Jr.), an old-time, rabble-rousing politico, adept at manipulating crowds and the media. He is protesting building a Liberty Museum without acknowledging the slaves' quarters. The space, 8½-feet square, marked off with pegs and cord, becomes the "house with no walls," what Cadence calls a "shrine to our helplessness."
Caught between these two is a meek Jewish liberal academic, Allen Rosen (Seth Reichgott), whose interest in historical accuracy is quickly subsumed by the others' agendas: If "history is identity," are African Americans permanently tied to the past of their slavery, as Salif would maintain? Or, as Cadence insists, is the need now to "blame the need to be the victim," and move forward to the future?
Everyone is a tool: the Abolitionist wants to help Oney escape in order to expose the evils of slavery with a high-profile escapee from President Washington's household; the Republicans want Cadence to give their agenda credibility with black voters; Camara wants to persuade people. But is he a self-aggrandizing scammer, using the hot-button issue of slavery and reparation for his own financial purposes?
Gibbons has, interestingly, written the most sympathetic roles for the two female characters, extending the play's issues to gender politics, but Seth Rozin's direction seems inadvertently to undermine that. Shaurice and Lee need to speak more audibly, since only the men are clearly heard (at least from the top rows of the theater).
The actors seem trapped by their stereotypical roles: There are no glimpses of personality, of shock or hurt or satisfaction or sadness or self-loathing, and we watch people who seem to have ceased to be human. In George Orwell's phrase, "the face grows to fit the mask."
The costumes (by Andre Harrington) identify the characters perfectly, from Salif's mudcloth vest and the gold ankh around his neck, to Cadence's sleek, upscale suits. This is additionally layered (in ways that might be wittier if the play weren't so humorless) by the contemporary characters dressing up in historical costumes. Tim Moyer as the ex-congressman is amusingly twinkly as the faux George Washington.
As the beleaguered historian who is unable to deal with contemporary reality says, "Let's think ourselves back...." A House Without Walls feels more like one of those living-history-museum shows rather than a real drama that engages us with characters who are not merely tools of the playwright.
A House With No Walls
Written by Thomas Gibbons. Directed by Seth Rozin. Set & Lighting by Peter Whinnery, sound by Kevin Francis and costumes by Andre Harrington. Presented by InterAct Theatre Company.
Cast: Johnnie Hobbs Jr. (Salif Camara), Tracey Conyer Lee (Cadence Lane), Lavita Shaurice (Oney Judge), Seth Reichgott (Allen Rosen/Tobias Humphreys), Bowman Wright (Austin Judge/Jacob Easton), Tim Moyer (Steven Gardner/"George Washington")
Playing at: The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. Through Feb. 18.
Tickets $22 to $25. Information: 215-568-8079 or www.interacttheatre.org.