Sunday, November 20, 2016

Slaves Just Want To Be Free

Famed for her work with the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman once stated that “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” In today's world, a globalized economy based on human trafficking has forced many people into indentured servitude or sexual slavery. Other than submissives who are heavily into BDSM, very few people truly wish to be slaves.

From the Ferguson riots to the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, from increased extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men by law enforcement officers to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the past two years have been a period in which roiling racial tensions forced Americans to take a sober look at what they call American exceptionalism. Is it any wonder that, during a tense post-election moment, environmental activist and political pundit Van Jones erupted on camera, stating:
"You tell your kids don't be a bully, you tell your kids don't be a bigot... and then you have this outcome. You have people putting children to bed tonight and they are afraid of breakfast. They're afraid of 'How do I explain this to my children?' This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was whitelash against a black president in part -- and that's the part where the pain comes."
Environmental activist and political pundit Van Jones

While all this was going on, two Bay area theatres were reminding audiences of America's troubled history with regard to slavery. One referenced a classic American novel written by an ardent abolitionist; the other exposed audiences to the little known history of "free people of color" and how capriciously that status could be revoked by law enforcement officials.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband had seven children. They also welcomed several fugitive slaves into their Cincinnati home and provided them with temporary shelter. In 1850, when Mr. Stowe was teaching at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, the Fugitive Slave Law (which prohibited any kind of assistance to fugitives and went so far as to strengthen sanctions in free states as well as the South) was passed by Congress. That same year, Mrs. Stowe wrote to the editor of the National Journal, stating "I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak. I hope every woman who can write will not be silent."

Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among The Lowly first appeared in serialized form in June 1851 in The National Era. According to Wikipedia, following its 1852 publication in book form, nearly 300 infants born in Boston were named Eva (there is no mention of any children being named Topsy).

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Nearly a century later, when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were working on a new musical based on Margaret Landon's 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, Hammerstein was inspired by Landon's description of how a slave living in the palace of King Mongkut (Rama IV) had written about Abraham Lincoln. In the novel, Lady Tuptim's platonic relationship was with a priest (although both were tortured and burned at the stake). In the musical, Tuptim is introduced to the audience as a slave presented to the King of Siam as a gift from the King of Burma (a gesture which horrifies the priggish Anna). Nevertheless, the story of Lady Tuptim inspired Jerome Robbins to create a narrative ballet reflecting the anguish of an unhappy slave who loves someone other than the King. Based on Stowe's novel, the ballet became known as The Small House of Uncle Thomas and is often performed using his original choreography. As Stephanie Prugh noted in Ballet-Dance Magazine:
“Robbins’s success in The King and I wasn’t found in authenticity, but in the fusion of where the East and West danced through cultures. It is important to remember that, as a choreographer, it is best to be grounded in our foundation and technique but, through research and understanding of how to fuse the complicated movements of different dance styles, a new and timeless creation can arise. Evidence of his research is seen in different aspects of the production, such as costumes (which were inspired by photos of Khmer dancing girls) and the use of symbolic props and stage assistants shrouded in black (a convention of Japanese Kabuki theatre). Staying true to two very important aspects of Cambodian classical dance – the highly stylized movements intended solely for the Siamese court and the all-female dance ensemble – Robbins created a fusion that defied the standards of choreography found in Broadway productions of the time: a fusion of Broadway spectacle and authentic replication neatly married to universal foundation.”

The woman upon whom Landon based her novel (Anna Leonowens) had spent several years during the 1860s teaching the children at the royal court of Siam. When Leonowens took a six-month leave of absence to visit her daughter in 1867, she ended up altering her travel plans. As a result, she was not present when Mongkut died late in the following year.

Siam's King Mongkut with his son, Crown Prince Chulalongkorn
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Although Leonowens maintained her correspondence with the new King Chulalongkorn (her former pupil), she never returned to Siam. She did, however, publish two books -- The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1872) -- which reflected some of her experiences in Bangkok.

Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in 1951's
original Broadway cast of The King and I

While the score for The King and I includes such popular songs as "I Whistle A Happy Tune," "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting To Know You," and "Shall We Dance?" audiences are often surprised by the political implications of the King's Act I solo ("A Puzzlement") and the opening song in Act II ("Western People Funny"). The following clip contains Anna's furious feminist and anti-slavery rant ("Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?") as performed by the show's original star, Gertrude Lawrence.

The King and I opened on Broadway on March 29, 1951. Like many people, my first experience with The King and I was the 1956 film version starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, with Rita Moreno as Tuptim and Marni Nixon dubbing Kerr's musical numbers.

I first saw the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein musical at the New York City Center in June of 1963, with a cast headed by Eileen Brennan and Manolo Fabregas. When Richard Rodgers was named head of the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center, the first show he produced at the New York State Theatre was The King and I with a cast headed by Rise Stevens and Darren McGavin. In May of 1968, City Center revived The King and I with Constance Towers and Michael Kermoyan in the leads.

Ricardo Montalban and Sally Ann Howes in
the 1974 West Coast tour of The King and I

After moving to San Francisco in 1972, I saw Sally Ann Howes and Ricardo Montalban at the Curran Theatre starring in 1974's production by the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. Some 15 years later, I saw The King and I at the Orpheum with a cast headed by Rudolf Nureyev and Liz Robertson.

In 1998, Marie Osmond starred as Anna Leonowens in a touring production that performed at the Golden Gate Theatre. Some interesting bits of trivia about The King and I include the following:
  • Although Gertrude Lawrence received great acclaim for her portrayal of Anna in the original Broadway cast, she died of liver cancer on September 6, 1952. On the day of her funeral, the previously-scheduled performance of The King and I was cancelled and the lights of theatre marquees on Broadway (as well as in London's West End) were dimmed in her honor. Lawrence was buried in the ball gown designed for her by Irene Sharaff for Act II's "Shall We Dance?"
  • One of the young actors in the original Broadway production began his career as an extra, went on to become the understudy for one of the younger princes, and subsequently understudied and became a replacement for the role of Crown Prince Chulalongkorn. His name? Sal Mineo.
  • Jose Llana (who played Lun Tha in the 1996 Broadway revival of The King and I), took over the role of the King in the 2015 revival and is now performing onstage in San Francisco.
Jose Llana stars in The King and I (Photo by: Paul Kolnik)

With sets designed by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber, the national touring version of Lincoln Center's recent revival of The King and I touched down at the Golden Gate Theater. Directed by Bartlett Sher with choreography by Christopher Gatelli (based on the original dances by Jerome Robbins), this production features the glorious original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, richly supported by Scott Lehrer's sound design. The show's overture was always one of my favorite selections while listening to LPs during my adolescence.

As the young Burmese couple whose forbidden love could only cause them trouble, Manna Nichols brought a beautiful, classically trained voice to the role of Tuptim while Kavin Panmeechao's Lun Tha tended to become strangely nasal during "We Kiss In A Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed."

Manna Nichols (Tuptim) and Kavin Panmeechao (Lun Tha) in
a scene from The King and I (Photo by: Matthew Murphy) 

Among the featured performers were Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, Anthony Chan as Prince Chulalongkorn, Graham Montgomery as Louis Leonowens, and Brian Rivera as the Kralahome. Baylen Thomas did double duty as Captain Orton and Sir Edward Ramsay.

Needless to say, much of the show's appeal rests on the shoulders of its two principals. As Anna, Laura Michelle Kelly offered a strong portrait of a woman willing to stand up for her legal rights and face down a foreign ruler with barbaric tendencies. Jose Llana's portrayal of the King revealed a curious yet stubborn man who was aware of his power but insecure about the amount of knowledge he suspected he did not know.

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana star in the national
tour of The Kong and I (Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

More than a half century after I first saw the show onstage, I still find myself in awe of Hammerstein's craft as a playwright and lyricist. While the four hit songs mentioned above have become American standards, some of the other numbers composed by Richard Rodgers ("My Lord and Master," "I Have Dreamed," "The March of the Siamese Children,"  and "Something Wonderful") now seem like lost and forgotten treasures.

Performances of The King and I continue through December 11 at the Golden Gate Theatre (click here for tickets).

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Over in Berkeley, the Aurora Theatre Company is presenting the West Coast premiere of Safe House, a play by Keith Josef Adkins that takes on an even greater sense of racial injustice in light of the current political climate. Set in 1842 in Kentucky, Safe House (which premiered at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in 2014) has been directed by L. Peter Callender with great care given to help portray a long-forgotten part of American history. As the playwright notes:
"I am a storyteller committed to authenticity, truth, and complexity. I am also incredibly interested and invested in the stories, voices, and complexities of people whose experiences have been historically marginalized, silenced, subjugated, yet courageously sustained. As cliche as it may sound, I believe every voice deserves bearing witness to life and my mission is to bear witness to the voices that speak to me personally, politically and, without question, passionately."

Orcas (Dawn L. Troupe), Frank (Lance Gardner), and Addison (David Everett Moore)
in a scene from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen)

There are only six characters onstage in Safe House, although the fate of another plays a key role in the lives of those standing before the audience. Working on a unit set designed by Kate Boyd with costumes by Callie Floor and lighting by Jon Tracy (with sound design and original music composed by Chris Houston), Callender lets the clues about the play's title unfold one by one until the audience starts to realize that something is dangerously amiss.

The audience first sees Addison Pedigrew (David Everett Moore) introducing himself to a prospective client as a talented cobbler who is more than happy to show his certificate proving him to be a "free person of color." Full of ambition, Addison hopes to build a free business as a shoemaker whose work is so well known that white people will come to his cabin for fittings (instead of Addison having to travel around the area). His dreams, however,  do not garner the same level of enthusiasm from his aunt Orcas (Dawn L. Troupe) and his younger brother, Frank (Lance Gardner).

Dawn L. Troupe (Orcas), Lance Gardner (Frank), and David Everett
Moore (Addison) in a scene from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen)

While Addison is full of bravado, they each have good reason to suspect his motives. Although Addison has been granted enough leeway by the sheriff to pursue his trade in the county, Clarissa and Frank are nearing the end of their two-year probation as punishment for helping some fugitive slaves find their way to freedom. Orcas recently found a letter from her sister hidden in Addison's pocket stating that, with help from The American Colonization Society, she had arrived safely in Liberia and was enjoying her newly-found freedom. As Aurora's Literary Manager & Artistic Associate, Josh Costello, explains:
"More than 15,000 black Americans settled in Liberia between 1822 and the onset of the Civil War, declaring independence in 1847 as the first African republic and winning recognition from the United States in 1862. Liberia's first president was a free-born black American from Virginia. Before the Civil War, nine out of every 10 black people in the United States were enslaved. Slavery was almost entirely restricted to the South by the middle of the 19th century, so most black Americans living in the North were free. Perhaps surprisingly, however, there were more free African-Americans living in the South than in the North. According to the 1860 census, there were 261,918 free blacks living in the South and 226,152 living in the North. Some, like Keith's ancestors, were the children of white mothers and black fathers. Others were slaves that had been manumitted (set free), and their children."
David Everett Moore (Addison), Dawn L. Troupe (Orcas) and
Lance Gardner (Frank) in a scene from Safe House
(Photo by: David Allen)
"Free People of Color in the antebellum South lived under much harsher discriminatory policies than their counterparts in the North. Despite their severely limited abilities to travel or assemble, Keith's ancestors ran businesses, founded churches, and helped escaped slaves reach freedom on the Underground Railroad. He took particular inspiration from a branch of his family that worked as shoemakers. Keith crafted a story of two brothers who approach their situation in very different ways. One is determined to get ahead within the white world, and believes strongly in the virtue of hard work. The other chafes under society's rules and his brother's expectations. By exploring this family and their community with such insight and imagination, Keith lays bare universal themes of sacrifice and betrayal, and brings a little-known period of history to life."
Jamella Cross (Roxie) and Lance Gardner (Frank)
in a scene from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen)

Reports that a fugitive has been sighted in the neighborhood (combined with Frank's recent foray down to the local creek) pose a severe threat to Addison's plan to invite the sheriff over to inspect the premises where he makes shoes. To make matters worse, the tone-deaf Addison has informed Clarissa (Dezi Solèy) of his intention to marry her without having the slightest awareness that she is in love with his brother.

After the shocking reveal at the end of Act I, the focus shifts from Addison's tunnel vision to what moves must be taken in order to help a terrified young girl -- who has never met a "free person of color" -- make it to her next stop on the Underground Railroad ("The name on everybody's lips is gonna be Roxie....").

The awkward predicament of Roxie (Jamella Cross) and Frank's curiosity about what had been done to her becomes a full-fledged crisis when Addison discovers that the scared and angry young girl has been hiding under his roof. Panicking about what the sheriff might do to destroy his shoemaking business (and not very clear on the concept of how he has betrayed his brother), Addison can only think about putting potential profits over the distress of real people. As the play hurtles toward its conclusion -- which gives new meaning to the age-old question "Am I my brother's keeper?" --  the sheriff's white henchman, Bracken (Cassidy Brown), is confronted by Orcas, who reminds him of the love that grew out of their childhood friendship.

Dawn L. Troupe (Orcas) and Cassidy Brown (Bracken)
in a scene from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen)

The playwright's skill as a storyteller and dramatist (Adkins is also the artistic director and co-founder of The New Black Fest) is most impressive. Under Callender's direction, Aurora's ensemble does a powerful job of bringing the characters in Safe House to life. Although David Everett Moore's portrayal of Addison is highly animated, his character is such an asshole that I often found it difficult to feel much sympathy for him. Jamella Cross (Roxie) and Dawn L. Troupe (Orcas) shone in moments of extreme poignancy.

In smaller roles, Cassidy Brown appeared as Bracken and Dezi Solèy as Clarissa. It was especially gratifying to see Lance Gardner finally get a chance to sink his teeth into a complex character filled with conflicting emotions.

Jamella Cross (Roxie) and Dawn L. Troupe (Orcas) in a scene
from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen)

Performances of Safe House continue through December 4 at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here for tickets).

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