nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
In the 1930s, the WPA recorded memories of former slaves across
the United States. One ex-slave quoted in the program said, "I
ain’t never been asked ‘bout myself in my whole life."
August 15, 2003
Luckily, the WPA did ask, and equally luckily, Jonathan Payne, in Slavery, has taken some of these reminiscences, framed them with songs, and let loose the amazing voices of a great cast. Payne, who also performs, has created a piece that is fully responsive to the material and does not narrow its focus to propound any one "moral." This is not an agitprop piece hitting its audience over the head, nor is it without a strong sense of purpose. By truly honoring the lives and experiences recounted in its text, giving them full voice, the production took me in entirely. It allowed me to respond without ever telling me how to, but always made me want to.
A truly ensemble cast contributes to all the scenarios. Sometimes it is one actor reliving the memory while the rest serve as a chorus of unnamed listeners, whose responses to the actor speaking further define who that character is. At other points, the ensemble creates the setting through background sounds and rhythms. The voices are so powerful in the intimate Bottle Factory space that at the top it was difficult to hear some of the text. The words got a bit lost amid the strength of the collective company voices. That was resolved quickly and not a problem throughout. The songs are fantastic and flesh out all the memories. A friend who saw the show with me felt that they should record the songs and make a CD available. I agree with her absolutely.
All of the actors are wonderful. G�hane Strechler begins with a bold connection to the audience and her energy never fails. Jonathan Payne’s voice richly creates the old man, bringing us to different places throughout the narrative. Maxine Carter can smile on top of anything and each smile says something different. Mittie S. Armstrong, whether playing young or old, has a watchfulness that takes in all about her. Morris Shepherd has so strong a life inside his character, I wished the character had more words to talk about himself. Anthony Tomkins as Frank Bell about broke my heart with the maimed life of his character. Jasmine Jobity closes the show with a gorgeous rendition of "Amazing Grace" that gives grace to all.
These are actors who will take you there and this is a show that is just going to keep growing.