Saturday, September 13, 2008

Southern Promises and Lady

Even though I generally prefer less traditional, more avant garde theater, I also enjoy a well-done, well-made play. This week, I had opportunities to see two productions that were both extremely powerful and often, and in different ways, difficult to watch. That they've stayed with me for several days now is a testament to the skills of the authors and the talented casts.

The first, Thomas Bradshaw's Southern Promises at P.S. 122 takes place on a pre-Civil War plantation of modest means. Its gravely ill master tells his wife that he wants her to free their slaves upon his death; it comes as no surprise, of course, when this does not happen. The story that unfolds—in mercifully short and incredibly ugly vignettes—reveals the depths of degradation to which that "peculiar institution" brought both the masters and the enslaved. The play, based on the true story of Henry Box Brown, has a deceptive simplicity: there's almost no subtext here because the characters are remarkably direct and frank about their intentions. As we are forced to endure the many reversals and contradictions of the Caucasian characters, we soon realize that the plague of slavery taints everyone who comes into contact with it. The production, led by director José Zayas and performed by an extremely talented cast, is sure and deliberate, which matches Bradshaw's precise language very well—it's a daunting task to maintain tension in a slower-paced performance but these artists are all equal to the challenge.

A few minutes into Craig Wright's Lady at Rattlestick Theatre I found myself thinking, "Oh, no: it's going to be one of those plays: a movie script that someone couldn't get made so they decided to put it on the stage." Fortunately, that feeling quickly passed and I was completely drawn into the smoothly directed and very well-acted drama about three middle-aged high school friends on a hunting trip. I don't want to give away too much of the story because I think Wright has a done a fantastic job of unfolding the plot in small pieces that grow larger and more complex as the play continues: each new revelation forces you to question the veracity of something that came before. Director Dexter Bullard and the actors have all done a marvelous job of slowly building up the pressure throughout the production—you know pretty early on that it's all going to explode but when it finally comes, it's still a shock.

Neither play is light fair for an evening out but they're both wonderful productions by talented artists. They reminded me of the power in the immediacy and intimacy of small theaters: they may not be comfortable—physically or emotionally—but they can be extremely rewarding.

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