by Margret Echeverria
If you are easily triggered by trauma, you might want to delay this conversation while you continue your therapeutic regimen. Southern Promises by Thomas Bradshaw directed by Niegel Smith now showing at The Flea Theater in Tribeca is not a show for emotional wimps. The play confronts some of our ugliest United States history with hard clear writing which immerses the audience into scenes of rape, murder, infanticide, relentless other abuses and the horror of willful ignorance. Yep. We’re confronting the slave experience tonight.
Bradshaw takes stories from writings of actual slaves from approximately 1840 to 1860 found in the memoir The Great Escapes: Four Slave Narratives and creates a new narrative which he sets on a plantation in Virginia in 1848. The master of the house, Isaiah (Darby Davis), on his death bed expresses his dying wish to his wife, Elizabeth (Brittany Zaken), and his favorite slave, Benjamin (Shakur Tolliver), to free all of his slaves so that his wretched soul may be admitted into heaven. Elizabeth makes promises to follow through with his wishes in order to comfort her husband but, upon his death, she reverses his will and refuses to free any slaves. Elizabeth repeats the propaganda of the time that slaves are not able to fend for themselves in the world and it is thereby cruel to turn them loose in it. Did anyone ever actually believe this? These declarations are an excuse for the mistress to carry on her lifestyle which is wholly dependent upon abusing humans. Elizabeth threatens Benjamin with a bull whip beating should he tell anyone what the feverish and delusional Isaiah uttered near his death and then, in her funeral veil, she forces Benjamin to copulate with her.
Smith directs this first rape scene on a brightly lit stage. Benjamin trembles in horror and Elizabeth calls him the N-word over and over again. The necessity for slaves to submit completely because there is just no way out is painful to see in the hard light. Tolliver’s powerful body is bare as he exposes the humiliation screaming in Benjamin’s heart. He has to push the humiliation down, deny his physical power and just survive it.
And the show does not let up. There is no intermission and no mercy. We are going to look at this, Brothers and Sisters. We are going to feel this shame in our bones. We think there may be hope when Isaiah’s brother, David (Jahsiah Rivera), arrives at the plantation to help free the slaves and take Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. But Elizabeth refuses to marry until she is assured that the slaves stay slaves. Elizabeth’s brother, a minister, John (Marcus Jones), offers a compromise of selling all the slaves off to fund a gospel mission. This oppressive option is not pursued. John and David’s relationship with God is where we find a little bit of comic relief in this show. However, the laughter is painful.
It is absurd to see David and John bathing in “Christian” love and comfort whenever there is a whipping or a murder. Jones recites the sacred texts beautifully mocking the saints and Rivera embodies an ever expanding ecstasy turning his eyes and hands upwards as though he has been at a Baptist revival for three days. We chuckle and kick ourselves at the same time because this is ridiculous yet we know that these tragedies really happened and there has been very little justice in the over 150 years since.
And if we are not disturbed enough, we feel even more sadness when we see freed slaves quickly forget where they came from. Benjamin and his wife, Charlotte (Yvonne Jessica Pruitt), escape the plantation and build a prosperous life which allows them to have servants of their own, whom they disparage and humiliate. How can this be? Who are we? I say, We, because this is us. The text of the show points out that many of us have heritages that are all mixed up – African and European ancestors decorate most of our trees simultaneously. Our pasts are not blameless. The cast of this show is only people of color to drive the point further to your marrow.
So, if you are worried that there will be no conversation at dinner after you go to the theater, go see this show. It will open your heart to a conversation that should be had out loud. All the hard things about this history of ours are brought to center stage without window dressing. The show does not dive into complicated relationship issues. We have no idea if anyone really loves anyone in this story or why they would. And while the development of relationships may have made the story a little richer, the writing a little more complex, it would have softened the blow and given us a way out of what needs to be discussed. Clearly, Bradshaw wanted to smack us up side the head and get us talking about the pain to heal these wounds. Mission accomplished.
SOUTHERN PROMISES by Thomas Bradshaw; Directed by Niegel Smith
Artistic director, Niegel Smith; Producing director, Carol Ostrow; Scenic design, Jason Sherwood; Costume design, Claudia Brown; Lighting design, Jorge Arroyo; Sound design, Fabian Obispo; Stage manager, Anna Kovacs; Assistant director, Tyler Thomas.
WITH Darby Davis (Isaiah), Brittany Zaken (Elizabeth), Shakur Tolliver (Benjamin), Yvonne Jessica Pruitt (Charlotte), Jahsiah Rivera (David), Marcus Jones (John), Timothy Park (Doctor), Adrain Washington (Imaginary Slave/Emmanuel), Selamawit Worku (Sarah), Adam Coy (Atticus), Ana Semedo (Elizabeth Unseen/Sarah Unseen), Lambert Tamin (John Unseen/Isaiah Unseen).
SOUTHERN PROMISES runs March 11 through April 14, Thursdays through Mondays at 7p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets start at $17 with the lowest priced tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis.The Flea Theater is located at 20 Thomas Street between Church and Broadway, three blocks north of Chambers, close to the A/C/E, N/Q/R/W, 4/5/6, J/M/Z and 1/2/3 subway lines. Purchase tickets by calling 212-352-3101 or online at www.theflea.org