Saturday, August 29, 2015

Review: The Slave

Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones') '60s-era race war fantasy gets a halfway effective production from Iron age Theatre for the Philly Urban Theatre Festival. Review by Wendy Rosenfield

Review: The Slave


By Wendy Rosenfield
For The Inquirer

The most surprising thing about Amiri Baraka’s race war fantasy The Slave--produced for the Philly Urban Theatre Festival by Iron Age Theatre Company--is that it has aged better than Dutchman, his most celebrated work, and the companion to this piece. This, despite its “kill whitey” ethos, its proclamation by black revolutionary leader Walker Vessels (Richard Bradford) that his children with white ex-wife Grace Easley (Lesley Berkowitz) are “freakish mulattoes,” and the frequency with which Vessels calls Grace’s current husband Brad (Bob Weick), a white, liberal university professor, a “faggot.”

No one ever accused Baraka, dethroned from his spot as New Jersey’s poet laureate after insinuating the 9/11 attacks were a secret Israeli plot, of being a nice guy.

Baraka (in 1964, when the piece was written, he was still known as LeRoi Jones) crafts a deeply conflicted character in Vessels, whose internal war matches the mayhem he’s unleashed on the streets. Vessels, after breaking into the Easley home and drunkenly brandishing a gun at the couple, calls his foot soldiers “ignorant motherf**kers who have never read any book in their lives.” He continues, telling Brad, “I would rather argue politics, or literature, or boxing, or anything, with you,” but instead will continue on the path he has chosen, and will take his daughters, those mulattoes, away from their mother and stepfather, too, by any means necessary. 

What resonates here, at least for this white reviewer, is the sense that entrenchment and political corruption are timeless. Vessels tells Brad, “You had your chance, darling, now they have theirs.” Substitute Robert Mugabe for Vessels. Substitute embittered Victory-era Athol Fugard for Brad. Grace, unfortunately, like Dutchman’s Lula, still only finds a parallel in misguided, treacherous Eve, but the point is, they’re all vessels, and the primary difference between oppressed and oppressor is a lack of opportunity.

Perhaps the reason The Slave succeeds as much as it does, which is to say, only about halfway toward its goal of completely infuriating its audience, is John Doyle’s empathetic direction. Despite the cast’s mediocre chops--lots of line-flubbing, and mis-cued blocking--we see into the depths of Vessels’ confusion and pain, and they are bottomless.

Another surprising aspect of this production was the emptiness of its opening night house. Any of the Philly Urban Theatre Festival’s productions I’ve seen--living room melodramas, all--have been sold out affairs. Why doesn’t this particular piece make the cut? Has Baraka’s bombast alienated everyone from his work, or is it that the “freakish mulatto” currently running the United States renders his message obsolete?

Playing at: Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., Philadelphia. Oct. 6, 7:30 p.m.; Center Theatre, TK, Norristown. Oct. 8-9, 8 p.m. Tickets: $15-$18. Information:;

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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