Good theater often asks difficult questions that make you think. Really good theater can make you squirm.
Such was the experience the other night when I saw the world premiere of A House With No Walls by Thomas Gibbons.
It was inspired by a real, present-day controversy in Philadelphia. Back in the earliest days of this country, George Washington staffed the executive mansion in Philly, which of course was the capitol at the time, with nine slaves, including his wife's personal attendant, Oney Judge. He coverted an open shed next to the manion into housing for three of the slaves, including Oney's half-brother, Austin. The small room was called the "slave quarters."
Two hundred years after the capitol moved to Washington, the site of the mansion and slave quarters was all but forgotten, with the last vestigages of the president's home lost when Independence Mall was created in 1952. However, when the new Liberty Bell Center opened in 2003, public debate over the irony of a museum celebrating liberty on the same spot where Washington housed his slaves was just starting to gain attention, thanks to the efforts of activists and historians.
Thus is the inspiration for A House With No Walls. The characters are largely fictionalized, save Oney (magnificently portrayed by Kameisha Duncan) and Austin Sheaun McKinney). Two of the central figures are Cadence Lane, a conservative, African-American historian (Karen Stephens) and Salif Camara, an African-American activist (Joseph W. Lane).
Cadence and Salif are squared off on opposing sides of the question, "Which elements of our past will we commemorate and which will we erase?" For Salif, nothing short of a replication of the slave quarters next to the museum will be acceptable. For her part, Cadence feels that commemorating the site through a museum exhibition will suffice. From those positions emerge difficult debate.
Playwrite Gibbons doesn't stop there. He makes audience members — especially those who are white — squirm by posing still more questions through the relationship between Cadence and her colleague/former lover Allen Rosen, a liberal — and white — historian. They pry open the issues of guilt and forgiveness. How much guilt should we carry for the sins of our forefathers? And does anyone — black or white — have the courage to say, "Enough. Let's put this behind us"?
It is a powerful drama by Gibbons (who was in the audience for the premiere Friday night) and incredible performances by Duncan and Stephens.
For my part, I left squirming.