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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
A Human Being, of a Sort
By DL Simmons
What is it humans love about captivity? Why do we arrange our own species in cages? And why are we compelled to gawk at so-called "freaks"? After all these centuries, the answers remain elusive. Yet the questions are no less urgent today than they were in 1906, when an Mbuti tribesman named Ota Benga became the star attraction at the Bronx Zoo.
Benga's biography, or what we know of it, is both epic and heartbreaking — he was enslaved, one way or another, repeatedly during his brief lifetime. Jonathan Payne's new drama A Human Being, of a Sort lasers in on the months Benga spent exhibited in a monkey cage at the zoo's Primate House. The attraction was controversial then and wildly popular. Darwin's Theory of Evolution was still a hot topic, and zoo director William Hornaday regarded the 4'11" Benga as some kind of Missing Link. Local clergymen were justifiably outraged and mounted a legal campaign for the release of the Congolese pygmy.
That much we know from public records. Everything else occurring at the Bronx Zoo that autumn required imagination on Payne's part. Since Ota Benga (Antonio Michael Woodard) never spoke much English or left behind a memoir, Payne has invented a confidant to sound him out and provide insight into his (assumed) inner life. Enter Fred "Smokey" Englehorn (André Braugher), a fictitious Southern parolee hired to be Benga's guard and keeper. At last the tormented and terrified captive finds a sympathetic ear, and the two black "employees" plot to outwit the deceitful white zoomaster Hornaday (Frank Wood).
Somewhat surprisingly, Payne has chosen Smokey as his main protagonist instead of Benga. Here's a direct descendant of slavery, jailed for stealing a few apples and three times the age of his ward, being asked to keep a fellow black man on a leash. Resist and he goes back to prison. His moral dilemma — must I be my brother's keeper? — turns out to be the crux of the drama.
Luckily for the production at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Emmy winner André Braugher makes a commanding Smokey. Wearing a grey beard and XXL overalls (a uniform quite different from his days on Homicide: Life on the Street), Braugher handily turns a philosophical role into an intensely physical one. When he bellows in agony, the audience feels it in their ribcages. When he later appears wearing an ill-fitting guard getup (a smart selection by costume designer Tilly Grimes), his humiliation is palpable. It's a good thing Braugher is onstage as much as he is, because his presence is missed when he's not.
The script's momentum comes to a stuttering halt whenever the three reverends (Sullivan Jones, Keith Randolph Smith and Jeorge Bennett Watson) take center stage. While the actors do good work, their roles are so indistinguishable that they come off like a droning, exposition-dumping Greek chorus rather than the heroic activists they surely were in reality. This is likely a choice made by the playwright, and not an accident. But the scant historical context they provide is not worth the sacrifice of rhetorical economy they require.
The problem is partly attributable to director Whitney White's minimalist staging. While she's elicited sharp performances from her main cast, too often the blocking amounts to actors hitting their marks at the beginning of a scene and remaining there until the next transition. Granted, all of the action (minus the final scene) occurs in a single confined setting, but so much stasis has the cumulative effect of lulling the audience into a vegetative state. We frequently long for Braugher to clomp back onstage and throw his broom around.
Portraying the ethically challenged William Hornaday, Frank Wood delivers a cranky interpretation of this complicated, ultimately vile white devil. The zoo director may fancy himself a progressive sort because he once sympathized with Abolitionists, but he fails to recognize his own complicity in the exploitation of a homesick pygmy. If Hornaday had any noble qualities in real life, Wood hasn't been asked to show them here. (Perhaps times haven't changed that much. If Hornaday were alive today, no doubt he'd be running for re-election somewhere instead of running a zoo.)
As Mr. Benga, Antonio Michael Woodard has the toughest job. Not only is he confined to a cage for most of the play, with only straw and burlap to rest on, he's also asked to do something very tricky as an actor: convey wit and verbal intelligence in a character who was much less articulate and probably less cunning in real life. As a result, he's cornered into playing a mythic character instead of a flesh-and-blood victim. It's an approach that plays well enough on stage — especially during Woodard's impressive second act monologue — but it restricts the work to "heightened" drama when a more authentic tone could have been devastating. It's a brave performance nonetheless.
Lawrence E. Moten's scenic design instantly transports us back some hundred-plus years to The Bronx. Institutional greens and walnut paneling line the walls of the zoo's Primate House, along with the mounted heads of what could be former occupants. Vintage glass ceiling lamps complete the illusion. The other technical designers contribute solid work, with special mention going to sound designer Sinan Refik Zafar's eerie clock tower bells, which announce the start of each business day with déjà vu and existential dread.
A Human Being, of a Sort peaks during its penultimate scenes, when Smokey and Ota Benga's alliance faces a disruptive test; Woodard, Braugher and author Payne hit powerful high notes. The epilogue — actually a flashback — might be more effective placed elsewhere as it lacks the closure, or at least a solid gut-punch, to end the play on a wallop. Regardless, Payne's latest drama offers a timely topic and a worthy subject. It deserves to break out of its cage.
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A Human Being, Of A Sort by Jonathan Payne
Directed by Whitney White
Cast: André Braugher (Smokey) Antonio Michael Woodard (Ota Benga) Frank Wood (William Temple Hornaday) Sullivan Jones (Reverend William Slater/Jumbo) Keith Randolph Smith (Reverend George Sims) Jeorge Bennett Watson (Reverend James Gordon) Matthew Saldivar (Samuel Phillips Verner)
Scenic Designer: Lawrence E. Moten III
Costume Designer: Tilly Grimes
Lighting Designer: Amith Chandrashaker
Sound Designer: Sinan Refik Zafar
Co-Fight & Intimacy Directors: Claire Warden, Judi Lewis Ockler
Dialect Coach: Barbara Rubin
Production Stage Manager: Dane Urban
Casting: Telsey & Company
Running time: 120 minutes; one intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage
From 6/26/19; closing 7/7/19
Reviewed by DL Simmons at June 29 performance (matinee)
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