There are millions of stories to tell about slavery in the United State, one for every person who was robbed of their identity and of their independence. However, removed as we are by the passage of time, there is a tendency to look at history’s victims as isolated figures. What the cast of Thomas Bradshaw’s Southern Promises does that makes this vividly told story come to even fuller life, is talk about what it means to them. They confront the history in the play that also pulses through their veins. Whether through DNA testing or family stories passed through the generations, they acknowledge personal roots in the tragedy of the Civil War. This personal touch makes every moment of the play ring with truth.
The script is strong, even if it isn’t necessarily groundbreaking. The direction is creative, and director Nigel Smith has made much out of little. Combined, they create a story that’s sad and infuriating for being more or less true. But it’s also hopeful in a way, being performed by a cast whose people survived and brought forth new life in this continuously divided nation. They did so despite generations of hate and laws that were designed to keep them down. Now their stories are being told.
The “peculiar institution,” a 19th century term for the continuation of American slavery was maintained by people who, as they do in Southern Promises, claimed to live by the teachings of a loving – and humanitarian – god. But they used that Bible as a bludgeon, intentionally twisting the words to beat down the meek their savior so passionately sought to help.
The story goes like this: A “decent” slave owner, Isaiah (Darby Davis), makes a deathbed declaration of his intention to free the slaves of his plantation. His wife, Elizabeth (Brittany Zaken), has other ideas. Once Isaiah breathes his last, she not only retracts his deathbed wish, but actively increases the burden of the plantation’s enslaved population. Two slaves in particular, her deceased husband’s lifelong companion, Benjamin (Shakur Tolliver), and his wife, Charlotte (Yvonne Jessica Pruitt), bear the brunt of her wrath.
The afflictions that befall Benjamin and his wife, Charlotte, continue to multiply. At first, Isaiah’s brother, David (Jahsiah Rivera), tries to talk Beth into keeping her husband’s promise. She calls on her brother, John (Marcus Jones), to argue the virtues of slavery. David succumbs, not necessarily to the counterpoint argument, but to his desire for Elizabeth.
He promises to do or be whatever it will take to be his sister-in-law’s new husband. Her wish, of course, is for the abolitionist to give up his defense of equality, take up the whip, and show the slaves “no kindness.” And so it is. It takes very little to sway David to sadism against a supposedly close friend. Yes, people are weak and do terrible things when it comes to sex and power. But he doesn’t have a second thought about it. If Jesus died for their sins, David and Elizabeth make sure that sacrifice pays well, and they do so with relish.
The abuses they carry out against the slaves are exceedingly violent, emotional, and sexual. They are sometimes quite graphic, with bodies thrown into stark relief using the simple but elegant use of lighting. It isn’t easy to watch, but it’s important to understand that this was probably far more commonplace than some may want to believe.
In each attack, a shadow is flung against the plantation house backdrop. This interplay of black and white, light and shadow, carries through the production. The backdrop has no other color, and at its imposing slant over the stage, it feels at times like the whole thing could come down on everyone’s heads. In a way it does. The weight of tyranny is unhealthy, for the oppressors and for the oppressed. Paranoia sets in. The urge to harm others grows in people who have been harmed. And finally, the past’s misdeeds can no longer remain secret.
For a production with such minimal components – the one backdrop, few props and set pieces – Southern Promises does what they do so well at The Flea: They leave a lasting impression. The play is affecting and emotional, and the performers make it easy to connect with the material, even if that material is painful. Being the history of the United States, it belongs to all who live here and who hope that the good people of the world will find the justice and prosperity they deserve while the forces of evil come to a just end. The effects of slavery on the American psyche reverberate to this day. The more people who can connect with the past and learn to empathize with people with different stories, as The Flea’s company continues to do, the better chances we all have to live in a better world.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Through April 18, 2019
20 Thomas Street