nytheatre.com review by Peter Schuyler
September 8, 2008
There are few things more humbling than seeing one's self through the eyes of another. Even for the briefest of moments, all the foibles, shortcomings, and otherwise unsavory characteristics that one tries so desperately to hide or ignore are thrown into sharp relief. This is brutal reality: to face the mistakes and sins inherent in one's character. This is the kind of theatre that playwright Thomas Bradshaw excels at. His plays are spare, blunt, and loaded with situations that the human race as a whole would rather not admit being party to. The majority of Bradshaw's work focuses on the relationship between white and black races; their tangled and violent history is explored in graphic and unflinching detail.
Southern Promises puts the history directly onstage. Loosely based on the true story of Henry "Box" Brown, who in 1849 had himself shipped in a box to Northern abolitionists, the play dramatizes events leading toward the event in graphic detail. Isaiah, the master of the plantation, is on his deathbed. He informs his wife Elizabeth that upon his death, his will states that all their slaves are to be freed. He calls in Benjamin, the head house slave (and childhood friend) to share the news. Elizabeth, not wanting to lose good property and her favorite sex toy (Benjamin), decides not to honor the will and keeps the slaves on the plantation. The stage becomes a flurry of racial violence, rape, infanticide, and murder, the majority of which is enacted right in front of the audience.
Southern Promises is a satirical drama, with some moments of broad comedy. Bradshaw's dialogue is intentionally mechanical and repetitive, driving the banality of evil home with every mention of "God's will." A simple sentence like "Shut the door please" becomes an obvious prelude to rape. His only break from form here is a fantasy scene where Benjamin (simple, kind, and uneducated) dons the mantle of his master and punishes a slave—to music. It's a striking, challenging piece that studies the abuse of power and the liquidity of morality.
Jose Zayas's direction wisely lets the action play out in each scene organically and never lets the performances comment on the satire with a smirk or knowing wink. This is the second time the pair has collaborated and one can tell from the results that there is a clear understanding between both artists about what is important in telling the story. Zayas doesn't overdress the show with unnecessary tableau, and in the case of the slave being whipped he removes action to heighten the impact. The show is very tight technically; Evan Purcell's lighting and David M. Lawson's sound design compliment the action perfectly. Ryan Eliot Kravetz's set is very functional but the theatre itself does have some sightline issues. Carla Bellisio's costumes mix period clothing with some modern elements, but overall you get the feel of the Old South.
It takes a serious commitment from an actor to perform material this incendiary and the cast of Southern Promises does not disappoint. As Benjamin, Erwin E.A. Thomas gives a beautiful performance as a simple man beset on all sides by cruelty and intolerance. Sadrina Johnson plays Charlotte, Benjamin's wife, with an urbane wit and tender charm. Lia Aprile gives a fiery turn as Elizabeth, reveling in her newfound power over the plantation which ultimately leads to her downfall. Jeff Biehl's David is a chilling study in duality, his kind features and ready smile belie the level of violence of which he is capable. Hugh Sinclair gives a grand performance as John the minister, mixing racist invective and pious hypocrisy with subtle humor.
As with any Bradshaw show, there is plenty to find offensive and jerk your knee at, but none of the action is gratuitous. The narrative does muddle a bit near the end, in fact the "Box" Brown scenes and closing monologue seem like they may have come from a different play. That being said, the show is very successful in what it sets out to do, which is put the audience face to face with the ugliest parts of society and history. This is definitely not a show for those looking for a light evening out. This is a challenging night of theatre. You will not be able to get this show out of your head.