Playwright Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection: Holding History was one of the most intriguing and provocative shows we saw last year. Can Woolly Mammoth’s production of his new work, Antebellum, hold a candle to it? A candle? My God! It can hold the whole burning city of Atlanta to it!
“Antebellum” means “before the war,” but it is not the war you are thinking about. Like Insurrection, Antebellum begins with two stories in two distinct venues. The first is in Atlanta, in the plantation home of Sarah and Ariel Roca (Jenna Sokolowski and Nick Vienna), on the eve of Gone with the Wind’s first showing in 1939. A mysterious African-American woman (Jessica Frances Dukes) arrives, ostensibly looking for work. This story at first seems to be a madcap comedy, of the kind not seen since I Love Lucy went off the air. Sokolowski seems a little over-the-top until you realize that it’s her character, not her, who is so extreme. (“Folks called me Simple Sarah since I was nothing but a tot,” Sarah says. “I use to like to touch hot things…”) Simple Sarah is in rapture waiting for the arrival of a dress she designed herself – a red and yellow concoction which looks like a bowl of mustard-and-catsup soup. She will wear it to the movie opening.
The other story is as serious as cancer: the quarters of Nazi Commandant Oskar von Schleicher (Andrew Price), where he keeps the source of his rapture, Black musician Gabriel Gift (Carlton Byrd). Gabriel is three times cursed under Nazi law: as a homosexual; as a Black musician (and purveyor of the “degenerate African” music, jazz); and as someone who, in the past, loved a Jew. Only von Schleicher’s violent, impassioned, eroticized love keeps Gabriel safe.
These two plots merge in a way which is astonishing, horrifying and ultimately heartbreaking. But O’Hara’s larger theme is equally heartbreaking. It is this: while we took the side of right in the Second War, the difference between the Nazis and us was one of degree, not kind. Of course, the Nazis made the extermination of Jews state policy, and organized death camps for that purpose. But Americans lynched Blacks – and in the memorable case of Leo Frank, a Jew – for generations, with little interference from the government. Kristallnacht is infamous as the German pogrom which foreshadowed the Nazi’s final solution. But what about the burning and razing of African-American neighborhoods in Florida and elsewhere in the early part of the twentieth century? Were these not our own pogroms? And while this obviously postdated the setting of the play, did you happen to catch the Little Rock pictures during the fifty-year anniversary of the forced integration of their schools? Did you notice the white crowds, howling and cursing as they chased after the kids? Couldn’t they have been incipient Nazis, just waiting for an American Hitler to make them goose-step and kill?
It is this hard truth which makes the opening of Gone with the Wind such a canny setting for the American portion of O’Hara’s play. The Margaret Mitchell novel, and subsequent Vivian Leigh-Clark Gable movie, was a massive, and largely successful, effort to paper over history. In this false, flawed version of the past, slaves were happy, grateful and loved members of their masters’ households; slaveholding whites were responsible, churchgoing folks who were just trying to hold together their way of life; and the Civil War was a great tragedy and injustice to the South. It is no wonder that the people of Atlanta were excited by the movie and its premiere in their city. It allowed them to substitute a happy fantasy for the guilt and shame which was their proper heritage. It was a fantasy which much of America held on to for nearly thirty years.
I cannot tell you how this plot develops without ruining it for you. Suffice it to say that there is a grim explanation for Simple Sarah’s behavior, and that if you have the stomach for honest talk, delivered bluntly, you will find this story moving and compelling. There are some astonishing developments which a lesser cast might have difficulty delivering convincingly, but there is not a moment in this production which is not absolutely authentic, and absolutely satisfying.
The entire cast does beautiful work, but Price gives a towering performance. His character is a typical bullying, spittle-flecked Nazi with a little bit of power, and he is as likely to slap Gabriel as he is to kiss his buttocks (he does both in the play). But he makes this tormented man sympathetic. His love for Gabriel is genuine, and the contradictions in his character – high-booted, sieg-heiling Nazi, hypermasculine hyper-aryan, gay man, lover of jazz, lover of poetry, lover of Gabriel – turn him into a human volcano, and Oskar, amazingly, is everything at once and still an authentic human character. Even when he is on stage naked – as he is for several moments in the play – Price is completely natural and unselfconscious.
Director Chay Yew’s work is also superb, as are the show’s technical aspects. Yew brilliantly intercuts scenes between the two stories, so that the characters from both stories briefly share the stage, and look past, through, and ultimately at each other in ways which unmistakably underscore the play’s core truths. Tony Cisek’s movable set- in particular, his invocation of a foggy haunted Georgia pine forest is brilliant. Valerie St. Pierre Smith’s costumes, and particularly Sarah’s preposterous dress, are great successes. Colin K. Bills’ lighting design, which marks the hour with unerring precision, is wonderful. There are some uncredited special effects at the end of the show which are as good as I’ve seen in Washington. Overall, Paul Bradley served as technical director with distinction.
Let me go further than that: Antebellum is the best thing I have ever seen on the Woolly Mammoth stage. Given the company’s distinguished history, that’s saying a lot.
by Robert O’Hara
directed by Chay Yew
produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
reviewed by Tim Treanor
Photos: Stan Barouh
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