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Lost on the Natchez Trace
In this two-hander at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex’s Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, Tom and Malcolm begin a cat-and-mouse game of which one can dictate the terms of survival. Involved in these negotiations are deep-rooted psychological links and racial separations, an economic divide, and the grip of personal anguish. Malcolm offers to arrange Tom’s freedom if he can get him home to his family and a doctor. Tom reminds the frustrated old auctioneer that his leg is badly injured and they are far from the river or trail
From the start, it is easy to see that the playing field is not quite level. As a white man, Malcolm would normally hold considerable power, but now he can hardly stand and is incapable of walking or defending himself from the snakes and bobcats. Tom, a black field hand alone in this stretch from Nashville to lower Mississippi, is young and strong. He has been roaming in this morass for a week, searching for his wife and baby after escaping his new owner. Performed with strength and grace by Leopold Lowe (Award Winner for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Classical Theatre of Harlem), Tom hunches in the trees, twisting and leaping easily around Malcolm.
Peter Browner ( My Deah, Glory Girls ), who is also a part-time auctioneer, is authoritative as Malcolm, who automatically asserts his rights as a white man, ordering Tom to help him out of the mire and get him home. “Looky here, I’m not taking anymore sass. Get to the road, bring back some help. I don’t care who it is, even the law. Find me a wagon and a mule! Fetch me a dry, strong stick to prop me up!” Tom calmly reminds Malcolm, “You and me need to bargain.”
Directed with focus by Kate Bushmann, the bickering between the two men moves cagily. The play dramatically shifts in tone after Tom demands to hear who bought his wife and baby at last week’s auction. After Malcolm’s confrontational denials that he was ever the slave auctioneer and followed by whining explanations, the truth emerges, heart-rending details of what happened and who is to blame. Confessions by both Malcolm and Tom are muddled with the torture of sin and blame. The need for atonement and the voices of the dead haunt them. It is the specter of Tom’s forgiveness that finally comforts Malcolm’s last moments.
Scenic designer Andrew Lu created a dark, dank set with heavy ropes twisted into vines and branches, weaving around and above the small stage. Lighting by Travis McHale further evoked the dim marsh light and David Margolin Lawson added faint sounds of wetland life and sudden blasts warning of an approaching storm. Costume designers Catherine Siracusa and Sidney Levitt put Tom into a light cotton top and pants well-worn from field labor. Malcolm is wearing his once white shirt and suit, now tattered and soiled.
Playwright and Abingdon Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, Jan Buttram ( Phantom Killer ), credits Peter Brower for originating the idea of Lost On the Natchez Trace. After Buttram wrote a first draft, she and Brower joined in examining the anguish of human bondage and people’s right to be free. The result is a powerful, carefully-crafted play igniting a debate on what it takes to be a moral person and how far we would go for those values.
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