A lot of hard work went into the Unicorn Theatre production of "A House With No Walls," which is true of any show.
The trick is that it shouldn't look like work when the actors on stage, but in this Kansas City premier you can see them laboring mightily with a script that is less successful as a play than as an interesting cultural debate.
This is the third in a trilogy of plays by Philadelphia playwright Thomas Gibbons dealing with racial politics. Like the previous installment, "Permanent Collection," this piece is based on real events.
"A House With No Walls" stems from a controversy that erupted when it was discovered that a museum/pavilion to house the Liberty Bell would be constructed on the site of an out-building once occupied by George Washington's slaves.
The central question is what, if anything, should be done to recognize the largely anonymous slaves who belonged, ironically, to the man considered a champion of "liberty" and the father of his country.
In Gibbons' version, the conflict becomes a running debate between Salif Camara (Danny Cox), a veteran 1960s activist who seems most comfortable with a bullhorn in the glare of publicity, and Cadence Lane (Lynn King), a conservative black intellectual being courted by moderate Republicans.
Salim's argument: Never forget the past, always draw attention to slavery and its legacy. Cadence's response: Let whites shed their collective guilt and blacks their "victim" mindset; don't waste time and money building a "shrine to our helplessness, our weakness."
Cadence's fame rests in part on her book documenting the life of Oney Judge (Teisha M. Bankston), one of Washington's slaves who escaped. We get to know Oney through historical flashbacks and moments when Oney and Cadence occupy the same time and space.
Thanks to Bankston's excellent performance, Oney becomes the play's heartbeat. She's the only fully human character on stage.
Other characters include Allen Rosen (Matthew Rapport), a scholar who once had a relationship with Cadence that he'd like to rekindle; Steven Gardner (Michael Linsley Rapport), a former GOP congressman who wants to make peace between Salim and Cadence so the museum project can move forward; and Austin (Jaqwan Sirls), Oney's younger brother.
Cox also appears as Jacob, an ex-slave trying to convince Oney to escape, and Matt Rapport is double-cast as Tobias, an abolitionist Quaker. Director Mark Robbins coaxes strong performances from his gifted cast. Cox is convincing as the limelight-loving Salim, as is King as the angry conservative intellectual. Matt Rapport finds plenty of nuance in Rosen and Michael Rapport is as slick and efficient as you would expect a Republican mover-and-shaker to be. Sirls plays Austin in broad comic terms, but never to the detriment of the production.
Gibbons depiction of urban racial politics feels authentic, but the play never really catches fire. You want the drama to transcend the civics lesson at some point but that never happens.
Personally, I wanted to see a lot more of Bankston as Oney and a lot less liberal-conservative ping-pong from Salim and Cadence.
"A House With No Walls" runs through Feb. 10 at the Unicorn Theatre. Tickets: $25-$30; 816-531-7529; www.unicorntheatre.org.