by Fioraine Kay & Randolph Curtis Rand
Directed by Jeffrey Mousseau
Featuring Brian Abscal, Ramona Alexander,
Penny Frank, Eddie Mejia, & David Scott
Coyote Theatre
BCA Black Box, 539 Tremont, Boston / (617) 426 - 2787

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Uncle Tom's Cabin or, the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life" as produced by Coyote Theatre is well worth seeing-- I urge that any serious theatre-goer in the Boston area see it before its abbreviated run closes.  The cast is abundantly talented and there is no subject I can think of that is more important.  The piece is designed to raise "issues' in a way that deconstructs them just enough to let in light and air, and the Coyote production makes for a zestful evening.
I saw the "real" "Uncle Tom's Cabin: or, Life Among the Lowly"-- most likely a trimmed down version of george Aiken's 1854 adaptation of harriet beecher stowe's 1852 novel-- in a touring production when I was very young, probably in the second grade, and it impressed and moved me mightily.  The Coyote production evoked memories of that staging, and I was amazed to discover that I can still see all the "big scenes" in my mind's eye, and match them to the on stage action at the Boston Center for the Art's Black Box Theatre half a century later. I read Mrs. Stowe's book not so very long after I saw the play, certainly while I was still in elementary school, and I suppose it must have had a formative influence on my attitude towards slavery and racism. (There were no "colored" students in my classes before college, no families in my Midwestern small town  neighborhood.)

Stowe was a writer revered by librarians and Sunday School teachers, and in college was I surprised to discover that she was despised by my-- all male--  English professors. Stowe was mocked as a "scribbling woman", incapable of sound thinking or good writing: a sentimental sensationalist whose Victorian moral cant and melodramatic sympathy for the "lowly"  made her novel fit only for her era's simple minded readers of popular trash.    To the 1950's aesthetic condemnation of the author as a foolish female the 1970's added the political charge of white expropriation and exploitation of African Americans' stories. Coyote's press release describing their version of "Uncle Tom" as an "innovative production {that} explodes conventions of melodrama and burlesque to portray the novel's disputed place in the canon of American literature and draws upon many other sources including Nine Inch Nails ... a theme and variations of 2 acts, 18 scenes, 1 burlesque and 1 combat." did not sound promising. I have lost patience with art that "explodes the conventions" of its predecessors and expects me to admire the debris. Some people-- reviewer Carl Rossi in the Theater Mirror among them-- did have this debris response to Coyote's production, and dismissed the script as incoherent. But for me, the script is a good example of the contemporary use as a structural principle of the actors' ancient assertion of universal humanity. Like Anna Devere Smith in her docudramas, Floraine Kay and Randolph Curtis Rand, the devisors of the Drama Dept. 's "Tom" script, feature actors' ability to "wear" recognizable characters quite different from their own ages, genders, and ethnicities. Like Caryl Churchill in her work with Joint Stock, they also expect that the actors can pass the same recognizable character from one actor to another without losing empathy or straining the audience's suspension of disbelief. Beyond that, the authors also expect that the actors can alter the moment to moment emotional tone from tragic to bathetic to light-hearted comedy without rupturing the narrative or baffling the audience.

"A theatrical tour-de-force! " the press release proclaims, and Coyote is exactly right about that. This character-passing is technical skill of a very high order, and the payoff is huge: a smashing production of "Cloud Nine" sends us out of the theater convinced that our real world failures are as nothing compared to the near infinite capacities evidenced by the actors' transformations. What a piece of work is an actor, who can be man, woman, or the angelic child Eva; a devil like Simon Legree or the Christ-like saint that is Stowe's hero Tom!-- and can do this in such a seamless ensemble that it appears as if all the actors share a common soul. Watching these sequential embodiments we are persuaded that we, too, must contain multitudes; and we concede Stowe's point-- all of us are equally human, and nothing human is alien to us.

Companies who specialize in this sort of thing typically spend a lot of time in rehearsal. If there is a weak link, a transformation beyond the reach of a particular actor, they throw out what they are doing and find something else. A physicalized conceit that fits the actor is "signal", one that does not is "noise". Enough "noise" and what is communicated is "Communication is impossible", an alienating message if there ever was one. Some scripts invite alienation, some postmodern companies delight in it. But "Uncle Tom" courts involvement and complicity, its very structure depends on this. The more successful the actors, the more effective it is. It's not unusual for Devere Smith or Joint Stock to spend more than a year to create such a piece, spend months to fine-tune it, and then tour it for half a decade. Coyote has no such luxury, and it shows. Actors Brian Abascal, Ramona Alexander, Penny Frank, and Eddie Mejia presumably had the standard compacted small theatre rehearsal period to be directed by Jeffrey Mousseau and dramaturged by Mackenzie Cadenhead.  Actor David Scott joined them a week before opening. They are individually good actors, and each is brilliantly successful in many of their myriad characterizations. The "feel" of the ensemble is fine and generous. However, they were still fishing for lines, and only about 1/3 of feats of technique they attempted actually worked on press night. A lot of people applauded the effort and the talent on display, and went away wondering what the hell "Uncle Tom"was all about.

I'm sure that by the second week end the company will be much better, and by the November 2nd closing, damn good. But some things can't be fixed without taking the show apart and working on it for another six months-- and in a community that had its priorities right, Coyote would be given the time and space and money to do just that. Then we'd send the show around to schools and theatres in other cities and subsidize the tickets so that everyone who could benefit from it could see it. As for who could benefit... philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in Poetic Justice: the Literary Imagination and Public Life, assures us that such an experience is "no mere frill. ..there is a deep connection between "fancy" and democratic equality. Literary works that promote identification and emotional reaction cut through self-protective stratagems, requiring us to see and to respond to many things that may be difficult to confront-- and they make this process palatable by giving us pleasure in the very act of confrontation."

Right. Right on.

So even if the show isn't tuned to the harmonious perfection that can be glimpsed just beyond the entertaining level it has achieved, you shouldn't miss the opportunity to see Coyote at play in "Uncle Tom's Cabin", confronting the Big Lies and the Dirty Little Secrets, "bring(ing) the past to life in present theatrical terms that embrace stereotypes, ideals, fears and aspirations" (PR quote from NY Times about the original Off-Broadway production) and in the process giving us pleasure and the courage to confront some of this stuff on our own.

Especially since the company is inviting even the purse-pinched Lowly by providing "Pay what you can"performances on Wednesdays.