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A House with No Walls

February 2nd, 2009 No comments

Went and saw “A House with No Walls,” (written by Thomas Gibbons; directed by Terrence Spivey) on Sunday at Karamu.  In the end, I must say, I enjoyed myself quite a bit. 

(Aside from the young girl in the far left corner of the house who, yes, let her cell phone ring—but alas, not only let it ring, no… that wouldn’t be enough…yes, she answered it…answered it and talked…until someone hissed and shushed her…is that the end…oh, no…did it ring again, you ask?…yes, it did…and she didn’t answer it…just let it ring.  I was tempted to stand up and ask the actors to stop and then pull a Lawrence Fishburne on the girl…I don’t know how that would have gone over.)

Regardless, I had a good time.  Clyde was in it playing three roles including that of a George Washington impersonator.  After the show there was a meet-and-greet line (which is the first time I’ve encountered that, by the way) and I quipped to Clyde that he continues to look remarkably good in wigs.

I was a bit shaky at the outset because I have grown so used to watching theater of a certain type: in your face, no fourth wall, etc., that I have been having a tough time seeing other plays.  It was the same sort of experience with Boom at CPT.  The experiences seem to move in slow motion and I am overly-conscious of the construction of the things: oh, here’s a big helping of exposition, here’s a detail that will mean something later on, and so on.  For the most part, this is the way that A House starts off.  The first “grand opening” is a bit overwhelming and the sensory overload actually confused me some.  But, I did like the activity of it.  Cadence Lane (played with an extraordinary, seething integrity by Katrice Headd) is at a podium, stage left, speaking passionately about race in America and timing, what turns out to be salvos of Oreo cookies being thrown at her; Salif Camara (played with strength and heart-felt moral outrage by Peter Lawson Jones) and Allen Rosen (Tony Zanoni as a convincing academic) use measuring tape and stakes to allot the slave quarters on Washington’s property; and Oney Judge (Taresa Willingham: timid, fresh, and with conviction) are all moving about at once.  I was enthralled by the measuring tape and stakes—maybe it’s a man thing—but lost complete track of whatever Headd was saying.

Overall, I think the message of the play was strong and I certainly felt compelled by it at times—at others I felt it was redundant and, as others have remarked, preachy.  But I felt that Gibbons did a good job of keeping the tension up by the use of the modern-American- political-drama shtick—you know, the one that plays out daily in newspapers…the one of rhetorical blaming and finger pointing and posturing for news papers and inciting mobs to do this thing or throw that thing or misbehave one way or another for the performance art of it all.  It hit every racial theme and every hot button racial issue—like reparation, interracial lovin’, mulattos and mixed blood, cultural and linguistic signifying, double-talk, righteous revenge, white guilt, etc. 

But most of all, I think Gibbons did a great job mixing it up.  I LEARNED from watching this play, and that is what strikes me the most.  This play wasn’t simply a dull exercise in ratcheting tension and getting people to yell in self-righteous fury; Gibbons used the space of the theater and the power of theater to create visual images: the most striking of which comes right at intermission, when Lane and Judge come face-to-face with one another—holding out, every so lightly, a hand toward one another—over the distance of 200+ years.  Their symbolic meaning, to the play, being that both are black women being “used” as political tools: Lane as a “token” Republican and Judge as a “token” run-away slave.  The house with no walls is a powerful symbol as well—as one would expect.  The demarcation on the ground of where the slave quarters stood, as well as Gibbons notion that the walls that once did exist were philosophically non-existent, as any white person could violate the privacy of the slaves’ “house” at any time.  I haven’t thought long and hard on the overall meaning of the play and what that image means for both of the women in the play—perhaps that their boundaries are constantly threatened, uncertain, and justify their tough exteriors.  I would move into a Bakhtinian analysis of the temporal dialog going on in this play between “the present” and “the past” but I won’t bore you with my lame attempt. 

(Although, I did write a very nice article on the subject with regard to Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, which I’ll post here just for the hell of it sometime.  On a gossipy aside, I met her when I was at Ohio University, where they have a very nice literary festival; and there are great rumors out there about a feud with Louise Erdrich.)

Regardless, Gibbon’s play draws very rich parallels between the two characters in time and has given me good structural possibilities for my play The Empiric, and ways that I can mix it up with the original idea that got me writing plays.  I like, as well, his playfulness with the characters in historical re-enactments then doubling into the characters from 200+ years earlier.  Very novel.  The use of the house with no walls as a boundary on the ground over which / through which the “past” slave characters do not step—until a dramatic moment late in the play—is equally compelling and theatrical.  The off-stage sound cues supplement the action on the stage in effective ways as well: the shouting of crowds, the droning beep of construction equipment and the loud diesel engines on a site.

I enjoyed the performance very much, found it thought provoking (when it wasn’t droning on) and visually / theatrically interesting, too.

On another note, I just thought I’d give a shout out to Terrence Spivey and Karamu for getting some well-deserved recognition in this month’s American Theatre magazine, pages 42-45. Very nice!

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