By Hands Unknown
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
August 13, 2010
Brava Company's By Hands Unknown bills itself as "a collection of powerful historical dramas," seven short plays all dealing with the practice of lynching. Although the promotions state the plays were "based on eyewitness accounts," I somehow didn't realize this meant the plays were all written in the 1920s and 1930s. I hadn't thought writers of the period gave the topic much ink—as I suspect may be true of others, the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit" is the only anti-lynching statement I was aware of. This is probably what motivated creator Kym Gomes to dig up these seven plays, all of them "little known and largely unproduced," to give them all their due.
A hefty ensemble of 18 actors guides us through the works—there is "Aftermath," featuring a young soldier home on leave from the trenches of World War I, only to have his patriotism shaken when he finds that while he's been off "fighting for freedom" in France, his father had been lynched a year prior; his sister simply couldn't bear to tell him the news. In the heartbreaking "Safe," a young mother is just going into labor when a lynching sets up outside their house. A visiting neighbor tries to usher her away from the sight by telling her "your job is to make sure your child is safe," which leads the mother to choose extreme and sad lengths to ensure her baby boy's "safety" when he is finally born.
The force of the material, however, doesn't completely hide the age of some the material. Gomes and the cast have given themselves a tricky task—theatre conventions of the 1920s and '30s were quite different, and writing that was electrifying in 1925 sometimes reads as overwrought in 2010. The cast and directors (Harvey Huddleston and Kym Gomes) do yeoman's work, but it's not quite enough to overcome the taste of melodrama clinging to the earlier plays, and some of the works feel more like museum pieces today.
The final play, though, is striking—and Gomes adds a contemporary coda to underscore it. With his 1938 work "Kill That Bill!", playwright Robert E. Williams used transcripts from a Senate session in which several Southern Senators filibustered to block a proposed anti-lynching law. The cast seems to have great fun with this work, giving the Senators real moustache-twirling nastiness; but at the play's end, Gomes screens clips from a recent Senate press conference held to announce an official "Lynching Victims Senate Apology Resolution." Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) and John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) explain that 200 such bills were presented before Congress between 1880 and the 1950s, and all were voted down, largely blocked by the Senate; in 2005 the Senate issued a formal apology for their failure to act, and the cast assembles onstage at the end of the play to recite it. The fullest impact of this moment didn't hit me until I got home, however, and looked up the resolution—even though the Senate apologized for past failures, there still is no anti-lynching law in this country to this day, and I honestly wonder why.