BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly
Theater people are a superstitious lot. They tend to say "break a leg" on the superstitious theory that if you wish the opposite it will bring good luck. The Drama Dept's latest brochure seemed to be in keeping with this tradition. The heading for its list of forthcoming shows announced"So far nothing but accolades and air kisses so surely Drama Dept. is ripe for a big fat failure.""
However, when I saw Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly at the top of this list I hoped this wasn't going to be a case of self-fulfilling prophesy more than a variation of break a leg.
To be sure the source material has enjoyed enormous success. Harriet Beecher Stowe's crusading 1852 novel is the publishing industry's first example of a runaway best-seller. Its realism based on first hand observation and authentic accounts gathered through interviews with former slaves, contributed to the novel's success in calling attention to the plight of slaves. The novel's history on the stage is equally fraught with box office success. Adaptations, (the most popular being George Aiken's), were put on all over the world. But the day for melodramas being long gone, resurrecting this century and a half old historic artifact is a challenge only the gutsy and talented people who are part of the Drama Dept. are apt to undertake.
What's to be done with a play that veers between broad burlesque, death scenes and whippings? How to be politically relevant and correct with a story that James Baldwin in a 1949 issue of the Partisan Review assailed as not only "a very bad novel" but a racist one?
If you're Floraine Kay and Randolph Curtis Rand, you distill the novel, various public domain dramatizations, some readings from slave documents and published opinions of well-known literati. Then you mix it all up into a prologue, a burlesque and a combat (oversee by the ever busier fight director Rick Sordelet) and see what happens.
Fortunately the five actors, (headed by K. Todd Freedman who last appeared in The Song of Jacob Zulu) involved in this enterprise are talented and versatile enough to play all the parts and all the styles, seguing from black to white, from martyr to oppressor, from male to female, from child to adult -- at one point Uncle Tom plays little Eva's mother, little Eva played by a black actor metamorphoses into her Papa, and Tom into Simon Legree. The dialogue is at times deadly serious, often tongue in cheek (as when the dying little Eva asks what day it is and upon being told it's Friday, says "Fish").
Sometimes, mostly in Act 2, it all works well enough. By the time it's over, however, you're left feeling you've seen a terrific acting exercise trying to be a play. This Uncle Tom's Cabin simply is not as good as its occasionally clever and incisive parts.
With only ten days left of the scheduled run, see for yourself if you agree with this assessment.