Art is a lot more important than sociology, and any artist who forgets it is liable to replace drama with polemic. Case in point: Look at the windier works of Lee Blessing. Or the more overtly political screeds of Joe Strummer, the entire works of Ayn Rand, the latter-day Susan Sontag, or Stephen Spielberg's Munich.
And look with sadness upon Thomas Gibbons' A House With No Walls, a play with impeccable morals and a deathly dearth of drama. When a committee is appointed to design a "freedom museum" on the grounds of the President's House in Philadelphia, where George Washington served from 1790 to 1797, a militant black activist named Salif Camara (Joseph W. Lane) objects on the grounds that Washington was himself a slave owner. Standing on the small patch of earth once occupied by Washington's slave quarters, Salif begins a demonstration under a sign reading "Avenging Our Ancestors." He represents one side of the race-relations polemic now on display at Florida Stage. The other side is represented by Cadence Lane (Karen Stephens), sort of a cross between Camille Paglia and Condoleezza Rice, an up-and-coming rogue intellectual and potential Republican pundit who serves as head of the museum-planning committee.
The two argue a lot. They argue at the site of the President's House, where Cadence paces and Salif stands stock-still within the demarcated boundaries of the old slave quarters. They argue in Cadence's swank university office. They argue and argue, Salif preachifying about reparations for the descendants of slaves and America's willingness to forget its own ugly history, Cadence griping about black America's low self-esteem and the perils of "victim culture." They're supposed to be two of America's brightest black leaders, but watching them go at it, I was disappointed by how little light they shed on the subjects to which they have ostensibly devoted their lives.
There's a "no duh" element — we've heard this before, and we'll hear it again the next time Oprah sounds off on misogynistic rap or Bill Cosby sticks his foot in his mouth. The only part of the polemic we haven't already internalized is the human element — how do these ideas reflect, or fail to reflect, the workaday realities of living, breathing people? This is a question Gibbons never attempts to answer, save through the person of Allen Rosen (Steve Hendrickson), Gibbons' awkward, nebbish stand-in for America's well-meaning Caucasian masses.
Rosen is a nice guy, a bookish white historian appalled by America's history of slavery. When we meet him, he's neck-deep in a weirdly parasitic friendship with the rabid Salif, half in love with and half horrified by the self-loathing and subsequent absolution such a friendship affords him. He knows that by being Salif's friend, he's putting as much distance as possible between himself and "his people's" history of oppression. But Salif's full of shit, and deep down, Rosen knows it. When he finds himself getting chummy with Cadence, he doubts himself. Pulling a few pages from the Reagan playbook about self-determination and bootstraps, Cadence helps Rosen realize the truth: He only ever paid lip service to Salif's angry rhetoric because of crippling liberal guilt. Thomas Gibbons clearly wanted white America to observe this epiphany and say, "Oh shit! That's me!"
But that isn't me, and it probably isn't you. I can't help but think that Gibbons has a less-nuanced-than-average view of race relations in this country. Either that or he's talking down to us, telling us less than he knows, showing his audience the same paternalistic contempt for which he castigates liberal America's relationship with American blacks.
While the onstage activists natter and whitey wrings his hands, House affords us glimpses into the lives of Washington's Philadelphia slaves. Austin and Ona Judge (Sheaun McKinney and Kameshia Duncan), a brother and sister, were two real-life slaves in the President's House — Ona escaped with another slave named Hercules; Austin stayed behind. There is apparently a lot of information still available pertaining to Washington's Philadelphia slaves: At the museum currently being erected on the site, the slave quarters will feature biographies of all nine souls who lived there. Given this, it would not be unreasonable to hope that the onstage portrayals of Washington's slaves might give us more insight into the nature of freedom and the human realities of oppression than the windy political broadsides proffered by Gibbons' imaginary activists.
Not so. Ona is solicited by the abolitionists and makes a few speeches about liberty. Austin fantasizes briefly about life as a sailor while whittling a boat out of a hunk of wood. Before Ona escapes, there's a touching scene in which Austin gives her the carving. But this isn't drama; it's sentiment. We all know that slaves want freedom — because they're slaves, right? — and House does little but reiterate the idea, over and over. The script never hints at what kind of people Ona and Austin might be, apart from their bondage. As happens with racism, what they are has superseded who they are.
That's a minor tragedy, given the caliber of House's cast. Sheaun McKinney is one of the finest actors in South Florida, his take on Austin Judge a breathing testament to human dignity and sweetness. When he cries after an argument with his sister, he cries — tears, snot, the whole works. And Joseph W. Lane is so compelling that it's impossible to believe he's not some grizzled, rabble-rousing ideologue, imported to give this painful rhetorical experiment a whiff of authenticity. The rest of the cast is as convincing as one could hope for, within the circumscribed world of Gibbons' script.
Florida Stage is in Manalapan, home of the superrich, and a lot of upper-crust white folks have season subscriptions. Throughout House's two-hour run, I felt sorry for the actors trying to peddle this stuff to the assembled elite. Surely, these latter-day robber barons have no need for absolution; surely, they've conquered their liberal guilt. I was wrong. Come curtain-call, House received the first standing ovation I've seen this season. I was confused for a moment, but then I wondered if the audience wasn't applauding Gibbons' writing or the brave men and women toiling to bring it to life. Were they applauding themselves, for being brave enough to watch black actors give them permission to be the friendly libertarians they were all along? This is what white America really wants: approval and forgiveness. But until it demands more than this hollow, painted-stage appeasement, white America certainly won't deserve it.