Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Review of Interact's "House with No Walls" published at

Thomas Gibbons’ “A House with No Walls,” is a very ambitious new play, dealing straightforwardly with many subjects that “no one wants to be reminded about.” Starting with George Washington’s ownership of slaves, Gibbons attempts to present not only the problem of how to talk about this today, but he does so primarily through the voice of a prominent black conservative author. His play opens on Afro-Centrist activist Salif Camara and historian Allen Rosen interrupting the building of the (fictional) Museum of Liberty being constructed on the site of Washington’s former Philadelphia residence, including his slave’s quarters. Enter Cadence Lane, the aforementioned conservative historian turned pundit, who happens to sit on the museum’s board, and an ideological battle over how to commemorate slavery’s legacy for the African-American community begins.

What Gibbons wants to do with this play, Interact does magnificently, presenting one of the finest productions I’ve ever seen on their stage.

As Cadence, Tracey Conyer Lee gives the kind of performance that makes you wish she did all of her acting in Philadelphia. She moves effortlessly from a quiet strength to a subtle portrayal of a self-doubt and longing that nags at her pride and convictions, all the while keeping a resilient calm against an onslaught of insult and criticism. As the activist hoarding “cultural ammunition,” Johnnie Hobbs alternates between accused huckster and impassioned defender, suggesting both while avoiding a demagogic caricature. And Seth Reichgott, playing the deeply liberal, deeply guilt-ridden Rosen, provides much of the humor while making the entire audience uncomfortable with his portrayal of their reluctant and resentful shared guilt. When he cringes over one of the many “damned no matter what you do dilemmas” of political correctness, you cringe with him, because his portrayal makes you feel what his character’s experiencing, and he makes you feel why.

Moreover, Seth Rozin’s direction seamlessly overlays multiple time periods, places, and narratives, enabling faultlessly timed debate and even a few dashes of humor, while never letting the production devolve into the senselessness and anger that too often surrounds these issues. And Andre Harrington’s costumes are perfectly tailored to both periods and attitudes (right down to the Egyptian ankh on Salif’s necklace), while Pete Whinnery’s lighting superbly highlights the sense of longing for resolution and identity.

However, the production constitutes the real success, giving Gibbons far more than he earns, as his ambition ultimately weakens his play. From a very strong premise of how to represent the past in order to enable a future, he widens the play’s scope until it eventually extends into an attempt to deal with every problem (he can think of) that affects and divides African Americans. The issue of reparations, what to make of the growing black professional class, college admissions, if “white liberal guilt” is more a hindrance than a help (Cadence calls it “the black community’s other plague), all work their way into the debates between Cadence and Salif. Unfortunately, this turns what could have been a long, fruitful discussion about black identity and the legacy of slavery into a series of sound-bytes, offering little more than an hour spent watching Hannity and Colmes. As a result, his play must end on a political compromise to the initial problem, with neither side speaking past the other, but with neither side (nor the audience) achieving any greater enlightenment either.

This production is undoubtedly worth seeing, but Gibbons, who is “done writing about race,” should have saved some of these ideas, and given us more in another play.

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