Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, produced by EgoPo Classic Theatre, directed by Lane Savadove.

Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin


for the Inquirer

When the Internet read about EgoPo Classic Theatre's reimagining of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: An Unfortunate History in January, it issued a collective groan. The gimmick - reverse racial casting, white actors playing blacks, black actors playing whites - seemed designed to inflame. Was this some "post-racial" commentary on Obama's America? Was it EgoPo's attempt to fill a "Tom show" minstrel slot in their vaudeville-themed season?

Director Lane Savadove fed speculation with naive blog posts claiming he had recently "discovered" the 1852 novel that has confounded and captivated public figures from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Louis Gates Jr., and whose title character's name Malcolm X slung at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in one of the most divisive racial slurs of the 20th century.

So, how did all that work out for EgoPo? Well, as devout Tom might say, "judge not, lest ye be judged." The production works surprisingly well, and its gimmick looks a whole lot like evolution.

This adaptation by Savadove and Glenn Odom uses incidental choreography by Paule "Duchess" Turner (he also plays Mr. Shelby and bounty hunter Loker), and direct quotes from Stowe, echoing the novel's episodic nature with quick scenes that interweave the fates of its multitude of characters (slaves, slaveholders, traders, Quakers, children) with direct appeals to the better angels of the audience's nature.

This script uses 15 actors and, not coincidentally, it's the most racially mixed cast I've seen on a Philly stage, perhaps ever. Its set is simple: bales of hay, a few chairs, a platform and, as a backdrop, an enormous American flag with all 50 stars.

Cross-casting accomplishes several goals here. Savadove claims it encourages audience empathy, but I say if it takes cross-casting to foster empathy with the plight of enslaved humans, you're probably a sociopath. More important is the fact that it helps defuse discomfort early on. There's an inherent humor in watching this role reversal, at least at first, with black actors lobbing the N-word, or diminutive Turner addressing Ed Swidey's much-taller, thicker Tom as "boy." But Act Two signals a change in tone, with trader Haley (the outstanding Langston Darby, who doubles as vicious plantation owner Simon Legree) posing Stowe's central question just before intermission: Who is more to blame, slave traders or a national economy constructed atop slavery's unstable foundation?

By the time Darby's Legree sits, miserable, flooded in red light on his swampland throne, Tom dead at his feet - Mr. Kurtz by way of the Emperor Jones - we see the real triumph of this production. Traditional casting might have kept Stowe anchored firmly in the past, but by using slavery's metaphor, we see why that flag has 50 stars. Exploitation of illegal immigrants, de-unionization, Gitmo, Bangladesh, all reveal their roots in that peculiar institution.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Presented by EgoPo Classic Theatre at Plays and Players, 1714 Delancey Place, through June 9. Tickets: $25-$38. 267-273-1414 or

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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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