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Theatre in Review: The American Tradition (New Light Theater Project/13th Street Repertory)

Alex Herrald, Sydney Cole Alexander, Danie Steel. Photo: Jody Christopherson.

If Bertolt Brecht were alive today, he might be creating something very much like The American Tradition, a confrontational, blackly comic tale that builds a bridge between the ghastly realities of the antebellum South and the racial divides of today. Ray Yamanouchi's new play begins with a pair of married slaves, Eleanor and Bill, who are about to be torn apart because their master has sold Bill. Eleanor is unusually light-skinned, however, and she cooks up a desperate scheme: They will flee together. Dressed as a male, she will pose as a plantation owner, traveling with her slave, Bill, to the North and freedom.

It's a plot that could form the basis for a historical fiction or action film -- just think what Quentin Tarantino might do with it -- but Yamanouchi takes a brazenly theatrical, thoroughly Brechtian approach. The characters are imbued with a thoroughly 21st-century consciousness and diction; only occasionally do they appear in period garb. There are many instances of direct address and the prevailing revue-sketch acting style never for a second lets us forget that we are watching a play.

And what a play: The action is wild and woolly, guaranteed to scald any audience member, no matter his or her political positions. Eleanor's plan spins out of control when she runs into Walsh, a slaveholder who is firmly convinced of the economic necessity of the so-called peculiar institution. In an especially gripping rant, he rails against the idea of freeing slaves: "For what? What kind of taxes they gonna pay? With what money? What happens to the cotton industry? The tobacco industry? The sugar industry?" He adds, "These Yankees keep talking about liberty this, liberty that; what about our liberty?" In response, he has founded Not All Slavers, an organization that "takes a progressive look at bondage." Later on, the group morphs into The National Institute of Economic Prosperity, "a grassroots non-profit organization that fights for the economic independence of America's hardest working entrepreneurs."

When Eleanor and Bill accidentally get separated, she ends up entangled with Buckley, a train conductor and proud member of Abolitionists for America, but his good intentions are waylaid by his self-righteousness and personal agenda. "Every other slave has appreciated what I'm trying to do for them," he says, wounded, to an insufficiently grateful Eleanor. "I just want to have a black friend," he adds, and when his attentions prove too stifling for her, he complains, "I'm not going to try and, you know, rape you or anything," thus pitching their already fraught relationship into #MeToo territory.

Meanwhile, Bill, captured by Walsh and put up for sale, escapes, accompanied by Rose, whose previous stab at freedom ended with being betrayed for two pieces of cornbread. Much more experienced in the bleak realities of the real world, she grows increasingly fed up with Bill's insistence on asserting himself because, well, he's a man.

The action of The American Tradition ping-pongs between moments of comedy and horror. A dream sequence climaxes in a chilling image of Bill in a noose. A Bible verse throwdown shows how easy it is to find an excerpt from Holy Writ guaranteed to back up any moral position. Rose is coached by Walsh to appear before his friends at the institute and testify to her happiness as a slave; if she fluffs a single word of her speech in rehearsal, he gives her a vicious smack. Bill tells a bone-chilling story about a light-skinned slave boy and his master, who is determined to darken his skin, by any means neceessary. And, in a typical alienation-effect moment, Eleanor corners Henry, a priest and slave auctioneer, at gunpoint and announces, in her best Dirty Harry manner, "Make my day!"

Under the direction of Axel Avin, Jr., the action is fast and furious, the playwright making his points with hammer-like force. At times, some of his blows are self-inflicted, however. To his credit, he keeps complicating the action with intramural conflicts that cut across the races, but he tries to cram so many points into the seventy-minute running time that the script begins to resemble A Child's Guide to Intersectionality, with a lesson doled out in nearly every scene. (Some of them are so baldly put -- as when Eleanor cries out, "I'm saying I want agency!" -- as to inspire laughter of the wrong sort.)

There's also a wearying overreliance on the work "fuck" for emphasis and easy laughs. In the first scene alone, Bill tells Eleanor, "You've lost your fuckin' mind!" She replies, "Do I look like I'm fucking joking?" Her favorite expression is "Fuck, fuck, fuck." Rose has a four-line rant that uses the word eleven times. Another popular expression is "Fucking Christ," which is offensive to no discernible purpose. Yamanouchi is a talented writer, and he will get even better if he puts such easy, lazy tactics behind him.

All five cast members deliver strongly defined performances, however, led by Sydney Cole Alexander, whose Eleanor is tough as nails and driven by a frantic urgency, and Martin K. Lewis, a powerful presence as Bill, who is stunned to discover that he might not be as smart as the women around him. Also fine are Hunter Canning, pulling off a dramatic hat trick as the weaselly Buckley, the pious Henry, and a local sheriff; Alex Herrald, oozing honeyed phrases and shots of bourbon as Walsh; and Danie Steel, whose justifiably impatient Rose doesn't have time for stupid men of any color.

Brian Dudkiewicz's attention-getting set design backs the action with a painting of the US flag on the theatre's upstage wall; the walls of the house are covered in posters of the Black Power logo, a piece of sheet music titled "All Coons Look Alike to Me," an ad for "Wm. H. West's Minstrel Jubilee," images of Angela Davis, a sign saying "Save Our Land: Join the Klan," and another for Black Lives Matter. It's a vivid visual representation of our cacophonous racial dialogue down through the years. Among other things, Elaine Wong's solid lighting design effectively introduces deep red washes for acts of violence. Enrico de Trizio's sound design combines his original music with the strains of "Dixie" and such effects as a train whistle and engine, barking dogs, cheering crowds, and organ music.

Feeling trapped at one point, and fearing that his freedom is slipping away, Bill says, "We were so close." Rose adds, "It always seems closer than it really is. That is the nature of this country." It's also the nature of The American Tradition, which comes out of the gate furiously, only to ultimately peter out, failing to deliver a satisfying ending; indeed, it simply grinds to a halt. Then again, the issues it explores remain open wounds, and the final scene -- a debate between Eleanor and Rose about the uses of violence -- is one that I fear has never been concluded. The American Tradition has many crudities, but you can't accuse it of being out of touch with our turbulent world. New Light Theater Project tends to fly a bit under the radar, but productions such as this -- and Hitler's Tasters, seen earlier in the season -- make one feel the company should be much better known. -- David Barbour

(30 January 2019)

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