Saturday, January 24, 2009

A House With No Walls, Karamu

(Taresa Willingham as Oney Judge and James S. Hakim as her brother, Austin.)

Speaking as a former English teacher in the Cleveland School System, the day cannot come soon enough when African-American kids will stop dissing good students of the same race by claiming they are “acting white.” This self-defeating perversion of racial stereotypes, implying that only Caucasian students would deign to study hard and achieve high grades, is sadly still out there and as pernicious as ever.

Perhaps the mere presence of President Obama will help put that particular demon to rest. But there are many other political-philosophical conflicts within the black community, framed as conservative vs. liberal arguments, that are aired in A House with No Walls, now at Karamu. Jumping back and forth in time from the 1790s to the present day, and based in part on factual events, this play by Thomas Gibbons is ripe with intellectual fodder and is aided enormously by several involving performances.

In present time, the Afro-centric activist Salif Camara is trying to lay claim to an eight-foot-square patch of land in Philadelphia where he and his historian friend Allen Rosen have decided one of George Washington’s slave houses stood, home to nine shackled slaves. (This was only a fraction of Washington’s slave holdings. By the time of his death, there were more than 315 slaves held at his primary homestead, Mount Vernon, Virginia.)

Salif’s desire to put a Slave Museum on that site is being challenged by those who are constructing a new American Museum of Liberty at the same place. This project is being led by a Republican congressman and an African-American historian, Cadence Lane, who is an emerging black conservative voice in the media with the publication of her new book, “The Race Circus.”

As Salif and Cadence engage in their intellectual debates about black issues, the play smoothly slides back in time as we see sister and brother slaves, Oney Judge and Austin Judge, and sample their lives under Washington’s control. Initially, Oney defends Washington as a fair and gentle master, but a local abolitionist opens her eyes to reality and soon she decides to escape to freedom.

Gibbons writes crisp and powerful dialogue that believably sketches the opposing viewpoints of blacks today. Where Cadence sees only a desire for victimhood and a lack of competitiveness in Salif’s obsession with dissecting past wrongs, Salif sees a pressing need to get history right and honor those who suffered under the yoke of slavery. To some degree, both are correct, and that makes for some steamy confrontations.

Fortunately, these scenes are in good hands, with Peter Lawson Jones conveying strength and purpose, along with a sly sense of humor, as Salif. Katrice Monee Head is equally forceful as Cadence, making her “conservative” points with no less passion.

In the slave quarters, Taresa Willingham as Oney registers the helplessness of her status in life. When she tells her brother that Mrs. Washington has decided to give her to Mrs. Washington’s daughter for her wedding dowry, the bone-deep humiliation is palpable. Although he comes terrifyingly close to over-acting, James S. Hakim gives Austin a quirkily energetic yet vulnerable quality that is quite amusing, even endearing, and serves the character well.

Tony Zanoni has some nice moments as Allen, especially when it is revealed that he and Cadence were an item at one time and he is caught between his attraction to her and his friendship with Salif. Clyde Simon, cast in three roles, makes an amusingly frowsy Geo. Washington reenactor, although he is a bit unsteady with his lines throughout.

Director Terrence Spivey keeps the pacing tight, which is a relief since playwright Gibbons tends to be a bit redundant at times. But there is a lot of red meat to chew on in this play, As Oney notes, their slave house seems strong, but it can’t keep their master or mistress from coming in at any time and doing anything to their human property that they want. Thus, the title of the show.

And it indicates that, even with the first African-American now cruising around in Air Force One, there is still a lot of baggage to be unloaded from our country’s history of slavery.

A House With No Walls
Through February 15 at Karamu,
2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077

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