“Just give me some of that good ole' southern comfort!” Most people associate those words with delicious, high-calorie food like fried chicken and collared greens or the whiskey, fruit and spices concoction made in the spirit of New Orleans. Thomas Bradshaw's Southern Promises has a different take. His version involves massa's comfort; comfort in blood lust, bondage, and as much voluntary rape as a married slave couple can take. But even when they're past their fill, Bradshaw has no problem shoveling on some more and cackling while doing it.
The material in Southern Promises is not of the ha-ha variety, even if some might escape between your gnashing teeth. It centers on Benjamin (Erwin E.A. Thomas), a “yassa, boss'ing” gentle slave, and his mentally stronger half, Charlotte (Sadrina Johnson). With a raspy voice that sounds more like laryngitis than weakness and an inadequately pale hue, their owner Isaiah (Peter McCabe) declares that all of his slaves shall be freed upon his death. Unfortunately, his wife Elizabeth (Lia Aprile) wants his ludicrous dreams to be buried with him. Too late, since Benjamin, Isaiah's “brother” and most cherished possession, was there to hear him say it. Soon after, Elizabeth marries her late husband's brother, David (Jeff Biehl), an ex-abolitionist turned severe massa. From there, a series of horrific events ensue, making Charlotte and Benjamin's leaps for the freedom carrot evermore crucial. But it's not all in vain.
In a silly segue that's meant to be the crux of the show, Benjamin morphs into famous escaper Henry “Box” Brown from The Great Escapes narratives. With help from Peter (an underused Derrick LeMont Sanders), a fellow slave, and a bunch of partially-funny voice-overs, he mails himself to Philadelphia. This isn't the first time that humor, however unnerving, rears its head in the play. Bradshaw has a knack for juxtaposing very uneasy circumstances; a shockingly nude Benjamin satisfying Elizabeth's sexual desires — with humor — Elizabeth resuming her bossy, terse manner a second after she's satisfied. And in this one instance, he also explores the violation of the male slave, sometimes mentioned but seldom seen.
Visually, the set by Ryan Elliot Kravetz is authentically prairie, and the costumes by Carla Bellisio are believable as hand-me-downs where the slaves are concerned and ornate enough where the genteel are concerned. Although Bradshaw maintains that his purpose is to entertain, not shock, he throws in an equal number of rapings of the married couple, and at least one exclamation by David during one of Charlotte that is worthy of earplugs. Luckily, David M. Lawson's sound effects, consisting mostly of violin clips with some hymns and Negro spirituals thrown in, are a welcome balm for the sore ears. But Lawson is not the only one who triumphs in sound.
Under Mattie Surovell's direction, the talented cast master their dialects, with Aprile using a particularly self-righteous lilt that makes her character come alive. Bradshaw's acerbic wit, demonstrated by the flat dialogue that he inserts in jagged situations, is served well by the dialects and by the impassioned actors who are delivering the lines. Apart from some very campy scenes, some wild inconsistencies in tone and an overly-satirized ending, the writing steals the spotlight from some worthy opponents. Because when Bradshaw is on — a parallel drawn between newly freed slaves in the 1840s and one perception of black people today as a group that “drinks all day, and looks for white women to rape at night” is especially noteworthy — he's on. Still, one strong contender, director Jose Zayas, stages everything beautifully, using every nook and cranny of the densely-furnished stage to propel the story forward.
Is Southern Promises forward-thinking? Yes. Is it entertaining and successful as a satire? Sure, it drips of sarcasm and ridicule. But when topics such as slavery are explored, especially when they are pulled from real stories, one can't help but cringe when the intent of a scene is to make you laugh even if you don't think you should. Also, the first 45 minutes of the show unravel in the same manner that many plays about slavery do: identify the evil white owners, see the slaves' plight, devise a plan of escape, rinse and repeat. The show could have focused more on the escape and its aftermath, rather than rushing to address it at the end. Southern promises may not have been kept 150 years ago, but when the press materials for the show claim that it “provides a unique portrait of the old south”, it should fulfill that in more ways than it has.