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: www.putf.org; www.ironagetheatre.org