Rooted like wooden figurines in a nineteenth-century music box, the cast of EgoPo Classic Theater’s adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’s CABIN stand in front of a gigantic American flag on the straw-covered stage of Plays and Players. The soft crack of fireworks signifying America’s liberty is replaced by exploding canons of war. The actors huddle in a tableau representing a budding young country crippled under the weight of the greed-fueled institution of slavery and a production crushed by one grossly over-publicized directorial choice: to cast African American actors as oppressive slave owners and Caucasian actors as their slaves.
Harriet Beecher Stowe sentimental anti-slavery novel was written in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a law forcing people in the free North to return escaped slaves to their white southern masters. Appealing to Northern white women, the book helped ignite anti-slavery sentiment in the run-up to the Civil War. It was adapted for the stage within a few months of its publication.
As vaudeville historian Trav S. D explains, “So-called Tom-shows became the staple of American Theater well into the twentieth century. While the novel probably did more than any other cultural product to turn the minds of Northerners (and some Southerners) against the “Peculiar Institution” of slavery, almost from the very beginning most of the stage versions were counterproductive to the cause of racial equality.”
Director Lane Savadove is acutely aware of the production history that haunts stage and film adaptations of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, but his fatal directorial flaw is a lack of faith in the empathy of twenty-first century audiences. The cross-racial casting only amplifies the racial stereotypes of the nineteenth century “Tom-shows”. What audience would disagree with Steven Wright as plantation owner Augustine St. Claire, exposing the corrupt nucleus of slavery in one of this production’s few palpable moments:
“The institution consists only of the oppressors and oppressed. Tell me that any man living wants to work all his days, from day-dawn till dark, under the constant eye of a master? The American planter is only doing, in another form, what the English aristocracy appropriating them, body and bone, soul and spirit, to their use and convenience. A lower class, given up to physical toil and confined to an animal nature; and a higher one thereby acquires leisure and wealth.”
Stowe’s novel is rich in detail, with detailed sketches of Southern kitchens, plantations, and estates. She strongly communicates the environment of the southern plantations because her central characters are slaves who are vulnerable to their physical environment, provided no protection, and regarded as property in the eyes of American law. But in this production the harsh material is presented without clarity.
The novel’s pivotal moment is the entrance of Eliza Harris. Stowe allows her readers to witness the monetization of a young mother’s beauty.
“The door was pushed gently open, and a woman, apparently about twenty-five, entered the room. The brown of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush, which deepened as she saw the gaze of the strange man fixed upon her in bold and undisguised admiration. Her dress was of the neatest possible fit, and set off to advantage her finely moulded shape; –a delicately formed hand and a trim foot and ankle were items of appearance that did not escape the quick eye of the trader, well used to run up at a glance the points of a fine female article.”
Savadove handles Maria Konstantinidis’s entrance as Eliza carelessly. Entering upstage left, the actor is blocked entirely by the two actors downstage: Paule Turner as her master, Shelby, sits in an elegant fat chair sitting across from Langston Darby as the slave trader Mr. Haley. Haley throws Eliza an offhanded glance over his shoulder, which the audience misses because he has his back to us.
Paule Turner’s abstract choreography on Joe Napolitano’s starkly furnished set also limits the immediacy of the action, as when Stowe’s riveting description of Eliza’s escape with her child over the ice-caked Ohio River is reduced to a painful slow-motion on soft bales of hay. Master Haley chases after her at a snail’s pace before the massive American flag opens up and swallows mother and child up in its protective stars and stripes.
Vaudeville was once the beating heart of American show business. It is unfortunate that Ego Po’s season dedicated to it ends on such a desultory note. May 29 to June 9, 2013. egopo.org.