Bill, at first, is having none of this: “We were born slaves,” he insists. “You just can’t change teams any time you please.” But the very audaciousness of the plan may turn out to be its strength. In no time at all, the couple are disguised and northward bound. What can go wrong?
Plenty, of course. On a train, they run into a loquacious planter named Walsh (Alex Herrald) who eventually steals Bill from Evander. In the latter part of the play, Bill finds himself on the lam with another slave, Rose (Danie Steel). Eleanor, meanwhile, is befriended by an abolitionist train conductor named Buckley (Hunter Canning) who longs to have a black friend.
On another level, the play is a sort of sociopolitical farce, reminiscent of productions that The San Francisco Mime Troupe has been staging for decades, often on makeshift outdoor stages. And it’s not just mistaken identities sparked by disguises that make The American Tradition farcical. It’s also the play’s pace and energy. Yes, there are some longer, somewhat drawn-out soliloquies. But even when the play turns grim and violent and full of disturbing racial content, it speeds along at a rollicking pace. With a few simple props and costume adjustments, the stops along Bill and Eleanor’s journey are instantly established and then quickly dismantled.
The whole thing is meant, of course, to have relevance to 21st-century racial and sexual politics. Yamanouchi uses intentional, postmodern-ish anachronisms as part of his strategy. Some characters—especially the enslaved ones—speak as though they are people of our own era, using such expressions as “read the room,” “my bad” and “in the friend zone.” In the same spirit, designer Samantha Rose Lind’s costumes mix mid-19th-century apparel with 21st-century T-shirts and hoodies.
All of this serves the playwright’s satirical social agenda. Walsh, for instance, is a member of the “Not All Slavers” movement, which hopes to create a kinder and gentler brand of human bondage. Buckley is a well-meaning but clueless progressive, who—when he learns the truth about Eleanor/Evander—at first has issues not so much with her race as with her gender. “I mean, I’m an abolitionist, not a suffragist,” he protests.
The cast is solid. Alexander is especially good. Her fiery emotionalism may work against the Bertolt Brecht–inspired “alienation” effect that Yamanouchi and Avin are going for. But she is nevertheless a valuable asset to the production. Herrald is the other standout. He makes the ugly-souled Walsh both abhorrent and ridiculously funny.
Brian Dudkeiwicz’s set is dominated by an upstage brick wall—mimicking the walls of the theater auditorium itself—painted with an enormous American flag. The theater space is decked out with posters and placards with racial (and some racist) messaging and imagery from various eras. Using Brechtian principles aimed at breaking down the fourth wall, Elaine Wong’s lighting design includes some non-theatrical light fixtures along with a few standard stage lanterns. Some light spills into the auditorium at times, in keeping with the Brechtian aim to keep the audience focused on the ideas being presented rather than drawn into the characters’ emotional struggles.
The whole enterprise seems dramaturgically sound, at least until the last five minutes or so, which are confounding. Perhaps Yamanouchi wanted to keep things open-ended and not tidily resolved. However, the play seems simply to run out of juice, without reaching a memorable or satisfying conclusion.
The American Tradition (extended through February 16, 2019)
New Light Theater Project
13th Street Repertory Company, 50 West 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 630-632-1459 or visit http://www.newlighttheaterproject.com
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission.