Flea Theater, the Sam
20 Thomas St. between Broadway & Church St.
Thursday - Monday through April 18, $15-$50
The Flea’s 2018-19 “Color Brave” season, comprising plays examining race by Todd Solondz, Geraldine Inoa, Idris Goodwin, Kristiana Rae Colón, and Nick Gandiello, comes to an incendiary close with a reboot of Thomas Bradshaw’s Southern Promises, which premiered in 2008 at the IRT in Greenwich Village. Bradshaw has updated the show, including changing the ending, for this run, which continues at the Sam through April 18. The cast consists of twelve nonwhite members of the Bats, the Flea’s resident company. “People of color in America don’t really have a tradition where we confront and investigate the legacy of slavery on our own terms. This legacy is the root of all societal racism in this country, and we as a society are just starting to dig our way out,” one actor explains in a prologue in which several of the Bats share an aspect of personal history involving race. Another says, “I’m just as much slave owner as I am slave. Both the oppressor and the oppressed. This contradiction is an essential part of who I am, and I choose to embrace it all. Every character in this show is me. Every one of these characters are my ancestors.”
Inspired by the book The Great Escapes: Four Slave Narratives, which tells the story of fugitive slaves Daphne Brooks, William W. Brown, Henry Box Brown, and William and Ellen Craft, Southern Promises is set on a Virginia plantation in 1848, where Isaiah (Darby Davis), the master, is on his deathbed and tells his slave Benjamin (Shakur Tolliver) that all the slaves will be emancipated when he passes. “You know, Ben, I’ve always thought of you as a brother. I want you to know that,” Isaiah says. “I’m honored, massa. I’ve always loved you,” Benjamin responds. But when Isaiah dies, his widow, Elizabeth (Brittany Zaken), whom he told about his plan to free the slaves, changes his will so that none of the slaves will be given their freedom. “It always seems to me such a cruel thing to turn ni--ers loose to fend for themselves, when there are so many good masters to take care of them,” she complains to Isaiah’s brother, David (Jahsiah Rivera), who was aware of Isaiah’s final wish. “I care nothing for the ni--ers, on my own account, for they are a great deal more trouble than they are worth; I sometimes wish that there was not one of them in the world, for the ungrateful wretches are always running away.” Also entering the fray is Elizabeth’s brother, John (Marcus Jones), a preacher who believes that the widow should now marry David. A toxic mix of greed and unholy desire ensues, and David becomes a vicious taskmaster, as both he and Elizabeth abuse Benjamin and his wife, Charlotte (Yvonne Jessica Pruitt), leading to a surprising, tragic finale.
Jason Sherwood’s set is dominated by a mounted large-scale photograph of the front of the plantation estate, tilting forward as if it is about to fall over and crush everyone. Tables and chairs are moved on- and offstage as lighting designer Jorge Arroyo illuminates individual windows to indicate where a scene takes place. At moments his lighting casts shadows on the facade that resemble Kara Walker’s silhouettes of slave owners raping and torturing black men, women, and children. (The play’s marketing image, which includes the tagline “We’re Finally Free,” uses silhouetted art by Walker as well.) In between scenes, snippets of southern rock songs by such superstars as Bob Dylan, the Band, Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others play. In such works as Intimacy, Mary, and Burning, Bradshaw makes audiences feel uncomfortable as he explores issues of race and sex, and Southern Promises is no exception.
It’s unsettling to watch the play, directed with a poignant immediacy by Flea artistic director Niegel Smith (Take Care, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music) and featuring Timothy Park as a doctor, Adrain Washington as Emmanuel and an imaginary slave, Selamawit Worku as Sarah, and Adam Coy as Atticus; the actors are all of African, Latin American, or Asian descent. This revised version of Southern Promises is like a mini-Roots, going beyond the systemic racism that has been America’s shame for four hundred years to reveal how the concept of race and its power corrupts even the seemingly most well meaning of people. The night I attended, an awkward, uneasy moment at the curtain call uncovered society’s continuing pain, as most of the people of color in the primarily white audience did not applaud at all while several white people gave a standing ovation. But as we know, from the daily news to plays such as Southern Promises, no matter how woke many of us white people may try to be, this country still has a lot of work to do.