Review: Fixing a Dispassionate Stare on Slavery in ‘Southern Promises’

Before “Southern Promises” begins, the actors collect on the Flea Theater stage to ship preliminary remarks, principally underlining that the present’s forged is made up of individuals of coloration.

This is integral to Niegel Smith’s revival of Thomas Bradshaw’s 2008 drama as a result of it’s set on a plantation in 1848 Virginia. Masters of each sexes graphically rape slaves of each sexes. Brutal violence abounds, each instructed and proven. The N-word is thrown about with informal abandon. (The textual content contains excerpts from actual slave narratives.)

Throughout the night, you could end up circling again to a few of these introductory phrases, particularly those from actors who mentioned they had been of combined heritage. “I’m just as much slave owner as I am slave,” one in all them, Adam Coy, says. “Every character in this show is me. Every one of these characters are my ancestors.”

This complicates a story that, on the face of it, is comparatively easy for all its horror. The married Isaiah and Elizabeth (Darby Davis and Brittany Zaken) personal one other couple, Benjamin and Charlotte (Shakur Tolliver and Yvonne Jessica Pruitt). Despite Isaiah informing each his spouse and Benjamin that he desires all his slaves freed after his demise, Elizabeth reneges on the pledge. Encouraged by her brother, John (Marcus Jones), the younger widow finally marries Isaiah’s brother, David (Jahsiah Rivera) — all of the whereas forcing Benjamin to sexually service her.

Life stays peachy (for the dominant aspect of this equation, that’s) till Elizabeth offers start to a black child.

This is par for the course for Mr. Bradshaw, whose soap-opera plots normally hinge on taboo sexuality depicted with such matter-of-fact graphic detachment that it may well nearly — nearly — really feel farcical. “Intimacy,” for instance, featured a teenage porn star and a realistic ejaculation, while the characters in “Burning” included incestuous neo-Nazi siblings canoodling in a bathtub. (Mr. Bradshaw, incidentally, has said he views his work as “being about reality — a hyper-reality, but reality.”)

“Southern Promises” displays Mr. Bradshaw’s signature dispassionate, almost mechanical approach — very different from recent notable productions dealing with slavery like Suzan-Lori Parks’s “White Noise” and Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play.” He blurs the line between deliberate artlessness and accidental ineptness to such a degree that it’s hard to tell if the dialogue is meant to be as bland and clunky as it often is. You may even read Jason Sherwood’s set as a sneaky comment on the writing style: The backdrop is a black-and-white photograph of a plantation’s facade, slightly cantilevered so it looms over the playing area. It is all surface with no depth, no interior.

But this would be shortchanging the effect Mr. Bradshaw has. Look elsewhere for well-rounded characters, because he isn’t interested in complex psychologizing, and the people onstage often make no sense. David, for instance, starts off as a decent guy who wants to free Isaiah’s slaves, then abruptly, with no explanation, turns into a violent sleazeball. Mr. Rivera’s borderline cartoonish performance does not help. And the actors, pulled from the Flea’s house company, the Bats, are ill-equipped to handle the play’s tricky tone.

But Mr. Bradshaw’s flatness is also free of judgment, which does not give characters or the audience any easy way out. There aren’t narrative devices that would give theatergoers a distancing mechanism from what they are watching.

When Benjamin fantasizes about lording it over a slave of his own, the scene is presented plainly — this is one of the moments when we most feel the impact of the casting, which forces the audience to reflect on issues of responsibility and power.

Mr. Bradshaw circles back to that scene at the end, which has been drastically changed from the original version.

Back then, Benjamin managed to escape from the plantation by having himself mailed to Philadelphia in a box. This does not happen anymore, and in the new finale, Mr. Bradshaw gives one further twist to his tale. Let’s just say his idea of a happy ending is likely to raise a few eyebrows.

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