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Source: Los Angeles CityBeat
Date: May 14, 2008
Byline: Don Shirley

A More Perfect Union

The 'Peculiar Institution' and a white woman's burden

It's no wonder that Barack Obama delivered his now-famous speech about race in America at Philadelphia's Constitution Center. Not only was the Pennsylvania primary campaign raging, but the cradle of the Constitution conjures dramatic resonance for anyone who wants to mark the discrepancy between the document's goals and the fact that, in Obama's words, "it was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery."

Obama — son of a black father and a white mother — discussed how black and white Americans could help "form a more perfect union." For blacks, he said, "that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past."

Not far from the site of Obama's speech is the office of Thomas Gibbons, whose A House With No Walls opened last weekend at LATC. Set in Philadelphia, the play perceptively dramatizes the struggle among African Americans between "embracing the burdens" and "becoming victims" of the past. Gibbons probes so relentlessly into the themes of Obama's speech that it wouldn't be surprising to hear that the speech inspired the play. Actually, however, the play was first produced before anyone had heard the speech.

The narrative occurs on two parallel lines. In the present day, a controversy erupts over the construction of a historical museum at the location of George Washington's presidential home in Philadelphia. A 60ish African American activist, Salif (Hugh Dane), wants Washington's slave quarters to be re-constructed on their original site. But the museum officials resist that idea, abetted by the conservative black historian Cadence Lane (Kellie Roberts), who contends that it would enshrine the slaves' status as victims.

Meanwhile, Gibbons also brings two of Washington's slaves on stage, in passages set in 1796-97. Oney (Toyin Moses) and Austin (Maurice McRae) are sister and brother. Oney hopes that they'll be freed when Washington's presidency ends. She's approached by two abolitionists who tell her that she'll never be free unless she takes the initiative to flee. They're drooling over the public relations value of a slave running away from the iconic Washington's household.

Both eras are occasionally represented onstage simultaneously, but usually the characters aren't aware of their cross-era cohorts — with one exception. Before Cadence became a famous conservative, she literally wrote the book about Oney, and she sometimes swears that she can hear the slave's voice.

The periods are also linked in the casting of minor roles. Darin Dahms plays a white abolitionist in the 18th century and a white liberal in the 21st. The latter character is torn between his fellow historian Cadence, with whom he has a romantic history, and the activist Salif. Perhaps he's the alter ego of the playwright, who is white.

The play is a remarkably nuanced examination of slavery's contemporary reverberations. It's operating on a much deeper level than Daniel Beaty's similarly themed Emergency, at the Geffen. Ben Guillory's staging for the Robey Theatre Company delivers about 90 percent of the play very well, but its sense of immediacy isn't helped by the extremely raked audience seating in LATC's Theater 2, which leaves much of the audience too far above the action. Still, the production's evocation of Obama's themes without mentioning Obama makes it appear both timely and timeless.

A House With No Walls, LATC Theater 2, 514 S. Spring St., downtown L.A. (213) 489-7402. robeytheatrecompany.com. Closes June 15.

 

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