Philadelphia playwright Thomas Gibbons is a smart, provocative writer; Florida Stage artistic director Louis Tyrrell is a smart, provocative director. Pair these insightful artists and you have the potential for some real theatrical fireworks.
Which is exactly what happens in the theater's world premiere production of Gibbons' A House With No Walls, third in the playwright's hot-button trilogy about race, history and ambition.
The first, Bee-luther-hatchee (2002), is about the ownership of stories, literary fraud and the ways in which the drive to succeed and amorphous ethics can intersect. Permanent Collection (2004) examines the incendiary struggles between blacks and whites over the future of an art museum modeled on Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation.
In A House With No Walls, Gibbons' key issue is the enduring pain of slavery. As with Permanent Collection, it is grounded in real controversy: When a new pavilion to display the Liberty Bell was built in 2003, a historian pointed out that the entering crowds would walk right over the ground where some of George Washington's slaves had once lived. Yes, that George Washington, first president of the United States, who brought slaves to serve in his official residence when Philadelphia was the country's capital.
Very long story short, after an uproar in which the National Park Service said it had no plans to acknowledge what once were 'servants' quarters,'' a project commemorating both the presidential home and the tiny space where several of Washington's slaves lived is to be unveiled this year.
What these facts stirred in Gibbons is a multilayered piece that is, by turns, sobering, enlightening, ironic, moving and (now and then) unexpectedly amusing.
Tyrrell has exquisitely cast A House With No Walls, and he draws rich, nuanced performances from all six actors.
Karen Stephens, who played the hot literary agent in Bee-luther-hatchee, gives a charismatic performance as Cadence Lane, a chic black historian-turned-neocon who argues that it's time to move beyond oppression as self-definition. Yang to her yin is Joseph W. Lane's effectively manipulative Salif Camara, an activist with his own less-than-pure agenda.
Steve Hendrickson is surprising and subtly inventive as Allen Rosen, a historian who shares a past with Cadence, and he has one of those dazzlingly theatrical moments when he slips into costume onstage to become Tobias Humphreys, a Quaker abolitionist. Gordon McConnell tackles three roles and is especially fine as an oily Republican ex-congressman trying to use Cadence to advance his agenda.
The two performances that cut to the emotional heart of the play, however, come from Miami actors Kameshia Duncan as Oney Judge, a slave who served Martha Washington, and Sheaun McKinney as Oney's brother Austin.
Bringing the past to life more vividly than any debate ever could, they convey the lives, dashed dreams and courage of two real people denied the freedom Washington fought to secure.
The other actors give A House With No Walls its fireworks.
Duncan and McKinney supply, unforgettably, its tears.