Playwright Thomas Bradshaw seems to have taken literally the dictum in theater to “Astonish!” His plays like Burning, Intimacy, Job, and Fulfillment, to name only a few seen in New York in recent years, are shocking, disturbing and an assault on both the actors and audience. In The Flea Theater revival of his 2008 play, Southern Promises, director Niegel Smith seems to have taken this one step further. In this play about race relationships between masters and slaves set in 1848 Virginia, an antidote to the theory of the benevolent slave owner, the ten-member cast of The Bats, The Flea’s young repertory company, informs us that they are all people of color and that they do not have a legacy of confronting slavery on their terms. Several of them reveal that they have had DNA tests performed and discovered that they are of mixed blood, making them both black and white.
Actually, this prologue is somewhat more effective than the play in Smith’s revival. Set in the antebellum on a slave plantation, the lines between masters and slaves should be clearly defined in Bradshaw’s melodrama in which rape, infanticide, murder, torture and lynching all play a part in the highly charged events. In Smith’s production, one has to keep reminding one’s self who the white and black characters are meant to be which turns the play into a sort of PC charade. Visually we are not seeing what we are told we are witnessing.
Inspired by The Great Escapes: Four Slave Narratives, Southern Promises includes language taken verbatim from these documents. The 2019 version of the play also has a slightly shortened cast list and a new ending which now makes the theme of the play about the fact that slavery taints and corrupts all who are touched by it. On his death bed, benevolent plantation owner Isaiah tells his wife Elizabeth that he has altered his will and has freed his slaves at his demise as he now considers slavery to be “a mortal sin and a blight on our civilization.”
However, Elizabeth does not agree with him and reneges on his promise which was told to Benjamin, his loyal slave and house servant, brought up with Isaiah. She then demands that Benjamin service her sexually. When her brother-in-law David arrives to see to the freeing of the slaves, Elizabeth tells him that her anti-abolitionist minister brother John advises her to retain her property and that freedom is unfair to slaves always taken care of by their master. When David returns with Minister John, he proposes marriage to Elizabeth and agrees that he will not object to her keeping her slaves. After his marriage, David becomes a brutal slave owner and secretly takes Benjamin’s wife Charlotte as his concubine. David, Elizabeth and John are often heard saying that the status quo is “God’s will,” giving it a religious ground. When Elizabeth gives birth to a black baby, things spiral out of control and a great many atrocities take place.
Jason Sherwood’s stylized setting includes a huge black and white photographic picture of a plantation house tilted towards the audience which suggests that all we are seeing is a dramatization, as well as metal furniture which is decidedly modern. Lighting designer Jorge Arroyo backlights various windows to let us know where we are in the mansion. Aside from the nontraditional casting, sound designer Fabian Obispo has chosen rock songs from the last 40 years heard between the scenes, giving the play a decidedly contemporary vibe.
The cast is rather uneven – or rather, the actors of The Bats use various conflicting styles. Brittany Zaken’s Elizabeth is a cold-blooded sadist, while Marcus Jones as her minister brother is not as into his role. As David, Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, later her second husband, Jahsiah Rivera cannot compensate for why his character goes from staunch abolitionist to rabid slave owner and back again. Both Shakur Tolliver and Yvonne Jessica Pruitt are fine as sensitive slaves but show very little in the way of conflicting emotions. Claudia Brown’s costumes are as stylized as the settings, mixing both historic and more contemporary pieces.
Thomas Bradshaw’s Southern Promises is still the shocker that it was in 2008 while the new ending makes it even less hopeful than before. However, director Niegel Smith’s problematic choices dilute the play’s power, thought the storyline is still disturbing and eye-opening. This is a world of black and white with no white. It makes focusing on the play’s historic violence rather difficult.
Southern Promises (extended through April 18, 2019)
The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, between Broadway and Church Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3011 or visit http://www.theflea.org
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission