nytheatre.com review by Ryan Nicholoff
August 13, 2008
The story of Ascension is a strong, beautiful one to which people from all walks of life should be exposed. It is an intimate look at a particular part of slave life; a kind of life that existed a frighteningly short time ago. It focuses on the relationship between two young slaves in Pike County, Alabama in 1850. Ruth is a gentle and loving soul who is hardened beyond her years due to the repeated forced sexual contact with the plantation Master, which is enough to turn your stomach. Then there is her soon-to-be-husband Jacob, a strong ox of a man whose big religious heart is saturated with the fact that the Master continues to have carnal knowledge of his fiancée. He relies on the ideals of the Lord and the hope for a better future to find peace. The Master "graciously" promises to discontinue his conjugal visits as he says he believes slaves deserve to get married since he is a Christian man. Going too much further would give away too much, but the cast wild card is Mathilda. Mathilda is a true African who aids Ruth in her torment from the Master.
Cynthia G. Robinson's writing is pretty, earnest, intense, and very well—researched, but I felt let down by the ending. The events of the ending have very high stakes, but there is no real catharsis for the audience, which I believe a play of this subject matter needs. Robinson gives us a rich text filled with analogy, allegory, elegance, and truth, and with a little more fleshing out could leave a true lasting impact that could last weeks and months as opposed to hours and days.
The cast is led strongly by Annie Lee Moffet, whose Ruth is subtle and vulnerable and possesses a bittersweet intelligence and self-awareness that leads to her largest mistake. Her true love for Jacob is what breaks your heart. She also has wonderful moments with her lovely singing voice. Cezar Williams's Jacob is strong both physically and emotionally. His soul and beliefs are part of the driving forces of the show and seeing him fight his rage through a song from the Lord was beautiful. Greg Homison is effective as Master Carlisle as we see the sadness, repression, and desperation of this despicable man. I liked the contradictions between his said Christian beliefs and his actions. Richarda Abrams is just what you want Mathilda to be: nurturing, maternal, and didactic when needed. Her guidance and protection of Ruth are heartwarming in contrast to the very difficult life she has lived.
Director Petronia Paley guides her cast through a very difficult piece with skill and an obvious pride that showed through the production. Her use of the inside/outside thresholds of the set is good and she doesn't let her cast shy away from very difficult moments. The functional set provided by Pavio Bosyy is enhanced by Cletus Karamon's atmospheric lighting design.
With some problems with the ending and some scenes that are too long, Ascension still makes an important and saddening impact on the audience. With the horrors of the South at that time and the injustices that still happen all over the country today, it truly speaks to the hope and beliefs of the characters that an African American man could potentially be the next president. What a journey.