The History of Light is a huge disappointment. Even the formidable talents of David Emerson Toney, playing a full-voiced radical who is also an absent father, are insufficient to fix this play. Derek Jacobi couldn’t fix this play.
Had The History of Light been the story of a doomed romance between Turner Sanford (Toney), an 18 year old black man just starting to find his voice, and Susan Hunter (Lee Roy Rogers), the 18 year old white woman who loved him, it might have been a wistfully touching drama. Playwright Eisa Davis has some insightful things to say about race, gender, love and the nature of insult.
Regrettably, Davis chooses to smoosh this story together with a parallel one about Turner’s long-abandoned daughter Sophie (Amelia Workman), a jazz composer and singer engaged in a preposterous and unconvincing relationship with a thoroughly repulsive white lawyer (Jason Denuszek).
The engine which starts these two stories on their creaky journey is Susan’s decision to send a piece of jewelry Turner once gave her to his daughter. This gift is soon followed by a torrent of old love letters, poems, and even a half completed novel Susan wrote about her relationship with Turner. Thus Susan, who imagines that Sophie would be interested in the intimate details of a relationship which the father she never knew had before she was born, shows herself to be an emotional exhibitionist, rather than a friend.
Still, poor Sophie seems to have a pretty broad definition of “friend”, to judge from her relationship with the sleazy and arrogant Matt (Denuszek). Sophie and Matt have known each other since childhood. They share a love for, and proficiency at, the piano, but there is nothing in the text that explains why this would be sufficient to bond Sophie to Matt in the face of his self-absorption and manipulation. At one point, Sophie, playing her own psychiatrist, decides that she has chased the emotionally absent Matt because her dad was physically absent. But in real life, that’s not how it works: such daddy-chasers pursue a series of unsatisfactory relationships, rather than going back to the same mope over and over again.
Periodically, and inexplicably throughout the first act, playwright Davis regresses the four characters to childhood and has them play with each other. The actors take this task on gamely, but whatever symbolic point Davis is trying to make is lost, and when she gives it up in the second act, it is to the play’s advantage.
There is a telling detail in the play which tells us how much inattention Davis has paid to detail. Early on in their relationship, Susan urges Turner to help oppose the “Republican-led filibuster” against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the Republicans didn’t filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, southern Democrats like Dick Russell (D-Ga), and James Eastland (D-Miss) did. Republicans, led by Everett Dirksen (R-Ill) helped win the bill’s enactment. Before a playwright can expect to win an audience to the truth of her play, she should first make sure that the play is, in fact, true.
As presently written, this play would be better titled Sophie and the Three Victimizers. Right now, the best thing about The History of Light is when they bring them up.
Running time: 2:10 with one intermission
The History of Light
by Eisa Davis
directed by Liesl Tommy
produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival
reviewed by Tim Treanor