A House With No Walls
Issues of race in America are so intensely fraught, convoluted, personalized and wrapped in ego, self-righteousness, guilt, rage, self-pity, anger, class and confusion that it's a wonder black and white can even talk to each other anymore -- and in many important ways, they can't. A white professor uses the word "niggardly" -- a word that simply means stingy and has been with us since Chaucer's times -- and a black student reacts with fury, insisting, even after the root of the word has been explained, that it should be taken out of usage because whatever it means, it hurts his feelings. While Fox commentators sneer that Barack Obama's middle name is Hussein and his last rhymes with Osama, some members of the black community reject the senator's candidacy on the grounds that he's not black enough. Sure, Obama's physically black, one of these people, author Debra Dickerson, told Stephen Colbert. But as the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother, he hasn't shared in the black American experience.
There's just as much insanity on the other side, with a horde of white conservative columnists pouncing on and publicizing the excesses of identity politics while refusing to acknowledge in any way the deep and permanent scars left by slavery and the pervasive racism that has marred or destroyed so many lives in the United States.
Finally, there's a special category of pundit: black conservatives, those darlings of the Republican party, who profit hugely by attacking other African-Americans. The protagonist of Thomas Gibbons's play, A House With No Walls, is a more thoughtful and credible version of this kind of talker, a brilliant historian named Cadance, who writes opinion pieces for the Wall Street Journal and is the author of a provocative book called The Race Circus. Cadance is routinely invited to college campuses by the Young Republicans, and equally routinely shouted down by angry militants. Although famous and wealthy, she muses on the loneliness of the black conservative.
The action is based on a controversy that erupted in Philadelphia when a local historian revealed that the entrance to a new pavilion for the Liberty Bell planned by the National Park Service was situated over the quarters built for George Washington's slaves. Gibbons has flattened this event, made the protests seem less reasonable than they actually were, and changed the Liberty Bell pavilion to a museum celebrating freedom. Salif is an opportunistic community activist who insists that an exact replica of the slave quarters be constructed on the site; until this is agreed to, he and his supporters will hold up construction. Cadance, a member of the panel overseeing the project, attempts to reason with him. At the heart of their disagreement is Salif's view that slavery defines the contemporary black experience, and hers that while slavery should be acknowledged, it is time that black people move beyond their obsession with it.
Another central character is Allen, a liberal Jewish historian who somewhat agrees with Cadance -- at least I think he does. Like everyone else in this play, he does a lot of talking, but his position is never entirely clear. Still, out of a mixture of white guilt and fear of being thought politically incorrect, he's afraid to support her.
The play wants to be seen as balanced and questioning, a challenge to audience preconceptions, but the deck is stacked. Cadance is clearly a more convincing spokesperson than huckster Salif -- if only because of what the script doesn't have her say. It's easy to agree with her mockery of victim politics, but we don't know much about the views that won her space in the Wall Street Journal and the affection of the far right. You have to be pretty hard-core to aspire to Condi Rice-type success in George Bush's America (cannily, Gibbons never mentions the sitting president by name). At the end of the play, Cadance sells out her beliefs for a high-ranking government job -- but I don't think we're meant to condemn her for it, because once in this lofty position, she succeeds in getting a squirrelly, sort-of, not-quite apology for slavery into the speech the nameless president is preparing for the museum's unveiling.
There are two other profoundly important characters: Martha Washington's personal slave, Ona Judge, and her half-brother, Austin. Ona struggles to learn to read; Austin whittles a wooden boat that stands as a metaphor for freedom. These two slaves represent the play's moral center, and they're presented as purely noble and good. Cadance's first book was a biography of Ona, who eventually ran away and found her freedom, and Gibbons suggests that in a sense, the two women are connected. The play's best moment occurs at the end of the first act, when they seem to hear each others' voices through the babble of the centuries.
Although some of their conversations are interesting, Gibbons's characters are largely talking puppets for dueling points of view. And the sexual encounter between Allen and Cadance -- clearly inserted for didactic purposes -- is the least sensual I've ever seen on a stage. You simply can't imagine the two of them in bed together.
The acting ensemble is strong, despite some fumbled lines on opening night, but it's hard to make these characters breathe. The usually excellent Gregory J. Adams seems somewhat at a loss playing nebulous Allen, and though Jada Roberts's Cadance is clear, dignified and strong, she's lacking in nuance and dimension. Tyee Tilghman, another excellent actor, seems not to harbor Salif's passion or conviction. Quatis Tarkington threatens periodically to go over the top as Austin, though he never quite does; Kurt Soderstrom plays several smaller roles with jovial energy. It's Simone St. John's Ona, however, who provides the depth and feeling that bring the play alive.
We are shaped more profoundly by history than most of us can fathom, and the history of Africans in America is particularly haunting and ugly. Cadance's insistence that her people move forward and Salif's that they must embrace the past aren't really antithetical. Integrating and understanding our histories and finding ways to carry them with us into the future is the primary task we face as human beings.
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