Also see John's review of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
Gibbons' play was inspired by a real, present-day controversy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the earliest days of this country, when Philadelphia was the nation's capitol, George Washington staffed the executive mansion with nine slaves, including his wife's personal attendant, Ona Judge. He converted an open shed next to the mansion into housing for three of the slaves, including Ona's half-brother, Austin. The small room was called the "slave quarters."
Two hundred years after the capitol moved to Washington, the site of the mansion and the slave quarters was all but forgotten. The last vestiges of the president's home were lost when Independence Mall was created in 1952. However, when the new Liberty Bell Center opened in 2003, debate over the irony of a museum celebrating liberty existing on the same spot where Washington housed his slaves garnered national attention.
Two of the main characters are Cadence Lane, a conservative African-American academic, and Salif Camara, a liberal African-American activist. Cadence and Salif are squared off on opposite sides of the question, "Which elements of our past will we commemorate and which will we erase?" For Salif, nothing short of a replication of the slave quarters next to the museum will be acceptable. He seeks not merely reparation for the past, but that it be avenged. Cadence feels that commemorating the site through a museum exhibition will suffice. She feels that it may be time to acknowledge the past and agree to leave it behind in order for a nation of people, black and white, to move on. From these positions emerge a series of valid and difficult debates.
Specters of the past, including Ona and Austin Judge, share the stage with Cadence, Salif and the others. They once again act out their hunger to be free on the site that once held their slave quarters. Ona's voice is ever a whisper in Cadence's ear.
Gibbons' script is admirably intelligent without pretense or apology. He eloquently addresses opposing racial perspectives with equal weight and thoroughness. He makes his audience members, both white and black, squirm by posing countless possible questions through the relationship between Cadence and her colleague and sometime paramour, Allen Rosen (who is a white, liberal historian). They pry open the issues of racial guilt and forgiveness in America. How much guilt should we carry for the sins of our forefathers, and how much shameful injustice shall remain behind unhealed? Commemorating history should serve to put hatred and anger to rest, and to promote peace and understanding. As the character Ona says at the end of the play, "If I be free ... you be free too." A House With No Walls is a part of our ongoing search for freedom.
Kameshia Duncan's acting as Ona is achingly beautiful. Sheaun McKinney is winningly callow and tender as Austin. Solid performances are turned in by Steve Hendrickson as Allen, and Joseph W. Lane as Salif. Karen Stephens is an amazingly believable Cadence. She gracefully handles the character's many lengthy debates without any signs of device. Despite his inclination to repeatedly stage his actors into triangles, director Louis Tyrrell has done a beautiful job of shaping this show worth seeing more than once.
A House With No Walls will be appearing at the Florida Stage through March 4, 2007. The theater is located in Plaza del Mar, at 262 S. Ocean Blvd. in Manalapan. The Florida Stage is a professional theater, with extensive programs for young artists, hiring Equity and Non-Equity performers from across the United States. Tickets and other information may be obtained by calling the box office at (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837, or on line at www.floridastage.org.
* Designates member of Actors' Equity Association: the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
+ Designates member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers
**Designates member of United Scenic Artists