Philadelphia — Do we own our history, or does our history own us? Or is the answer somewhere in between? These questions are at the root of crisis events around the world, from Iran and Iraq to Israel and the Palestinian State; to China, Japan and Korea; to India and Pakistan; to the former Soviet Union, France and Morocco; to South Africa, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Great Britain, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, and no more so than here in the United States. InterAct Theatre's resident playwright Thomas Gibbons is not the first to raise these questions; these theatrical themes date back to the days of Euripides.
Nor is he the first to resolve them.
They remain unresolved but with perhaps a different perspective (and maybe a new light at the end) in his smart new play, "A House With No Walls," which premiered last week on the Main Stage at the Adrienne Theater. What Gibbons does in this, the third play of a trilogy about race relations in America, is explore these questions as if he were a war correspondent on the battlefield of American race relations.
In his second piece of the trilogy, "Permanent Collection," Gibbons outraged many in Philadelphia's avaricious and acquisitive circle of art patrons when he set his play about the politics of race and the ownership of art in a place very similar to Merion's Barnes Foundation.
This time in "A House With No Walls," Gibbons, to paraphrase an ad, rips another story from local headlines by creating a fictional account of the fight waged over how (or even if) the story of George Washington's slaves would be told on Independence Mall.
In 1790, when Washington, his family, and slaves lived there, the President's Mansion sat pretty much where the Liberty Bell pavilion stands today. The slave quarters, a tiny residence about half the size of a decent hotel room, stood just outside the front door of the Liberty Bell Pavilion. Millions have unknowingly walked over where slaves were once quartered to view the cracked bell that has become one of our country's great symbols of liberty. The irony of this was never lost on historians and activists who lobbied, rallied, and protested until they won the right to prominently tell the story of the slaves who lived and worked there at the whim of the Father of the Nation.
Gibbons brings an additional context to the story by creating conservative African American historian Candence Lance (Tracey Conyer Lee) and putting her at the head of the committee charged with telling the story of the Presidential Mansion. Lance, we learn, launched her public career by writing a much-admired biography of Oney Judge, a real slave who slipped away from Washington and made her way to freedom in New Hampshire. Lately, Lance has had trouble with the public due to her latest book, where her argument for personal responsibility in the black community has made her the darling of conservative media and the Republicans, much to the dismay of many blacks and most liberals.
Gibbons creates an antagonist in the form of a black street activist named Salif Comara (Johnnie Hobbs). Lance, at one time, considered him to be an important community leader, but lately she believes he has turned into an obstructionist who prefers to keep African Americans in metaphorical chains of ignorance, poverty, and despair by, among other things, advocating for reprisals and apologies for slavery.
She sees his strategies as more of a cowardly refusal to accept responsibility for a myriad of problems confronting the African American community rather than a heroic attempt to stand up to injustice. Comara sees her as a traitor to her people, someone who has found it profitable and convenient to forget the past, and thinks she has dismissed her history as irrelevant, ignoring the suffering and tragedy that is the legacy of their common history.
Placed between them is Allen Rosen (Seth Reichgott), a white Harvard history professor who went to graduate school with Lance and, unknown to Comara, was her lover. He finds himself more confused than enlightened by the argument. Playing in counterpoint to this battle, literally in the background, Gibbons imagines the story of Oney Judge's (Lavita Shaurice) life and escape to freedom.
The result is another triumph for Gibbons and InterAct Theatre to hang proudly on the company's legacy mantle along with "Permanent Collection" and Gibbon's account of the Move disaster, "6221."
InterAct Artistic Director Seth Rozin's direction is once again confident. He has the great virtue of being able to get the stage moving so smoothly that attention is called to nothing except the story. Special recognition should be given to set designers Peter Whinnery and Rozin for their set and lighting creations. The stage was simply rendered yet unmistakably evocative of Philadelphia's historic district. Anyone who cares about Philadelphia, its history, and local theater should make it a point to see this production.
Gibbons' production is a part of the Philadelphia New Play Festival. It is also a National New Play Network World Premier with productions already scheduled in four other cities around the country.
"A House With No Walls" runs through Feb. 18 at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., in Philadelphia. For ticket information and times, call the box office at 215-568-8079.