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THEATER REVIEW

Slavery as bitter grounds for strife

May 16, 2008|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

The site for a proposed Philadelphia museum becomes a battleground for the conflicted legacy of our country's original sin in the Robey Theatre Company's thoughtful and timely "A House With No Walls" at the New LATC.

The third in a thematically related trilogy of Thomas Gibbons' plays staged by the social consciousness-focused Robey, this drama, like its predecessors (including "Permanent Collection"), revolves around a present-day collision of loyalties spurred by artifacts of African American culture -- in this case, slavery.

High-minded plans for erecting a Museum of Liberty on the grounds of the nation's original Executive Mansion are disrupted by the identification of the quarters occupied by George Washington's slaves. How to deal with the highly charged subject in the overall museum design becomes a point of contention between veteran activist Salif Camara (fiery Hugh Dane), lobbying for an in-your-face monument, and planning board member Cadence Lane (Kellie Roberts), a scholarly black conservative in the coolly analytical Condoleezza Rice mold.

Spurred by an internal draft memo that soft-peddles references to "slaves" as "servants," Salif publicly rages against a "fantasy factory that's going to gloss over everything that was done to us by this country." Cadence, on the other hand, resents the moral extortion of the "guilt industry" from which she's struggled to extricate herself.

Weaving historical fact with fictional personifications of present-day race relations, the piece is admittedly a thinly theatricalized debate -- the kind of play in which co-writing an op-ed piece becomes the make-or-break test of a budding relationship.

Yet Gibbons (who is white) presents both sides with surprising subtlety and complexity, exposing fissures in the far from monolithic "black" experience.

Though some flubbed lines betray the need for further settling in, Ben Guillory's staging infuses the piece with passion and urgency, particularly in haunting flashbacks involving Oney Judge (Toyin Moses), the Washingtons' runaway slave whose ghostly existence echoes Candace's present-day ostracism.

As Gibbons poignantly observes, disentangling the vision that gives us hope and faith in the future from that which drags us down and paralyzes us is far from simple.

--

'A House With No Walls'

Where: The New LATC, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays

Ends: June 15

Price: $30

Contact: (213) 489-7402

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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