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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Victory Gardens Biograph Theater

Also see John's review of Altar Boyz

Anthony Fleming III and Velma Austin
As of this writing, the community of Charleston, South Carolina, is debating whether or not to erect a monument to the subject of Charles Smith's new play —the freed slave Denmark Vesey, who may or may not have planned a slave rebellion there in 1822. His alleged plan to murder every white person in Charleston was squelched before it could be implemented, and as there are no public records of Vesey's trial, some historians doubt there ever was such a plot. That the leader of an undocumented, unsuccessful revolt could be an historical hero is just one of the play's unexpected premises. Denmark avoids the usual clichés of abolitionist drama to explore a larger theme of the nature and sources of personal heroism, for, unlike the majority of slaves of their time, most of the African-Americans in this play have a generally comfortable life and have much to lose by opposing their oppressor.

Denmark Vesey is a privileged, well-educated slave, valued so highly by his master Captain Joseph Vesey, that he is given a cash bonus of $1.00 after a particularly successful voyage. With his dollar, Denmark buys a winning lottery ticket that nets him enough money to buy his freedom, though not enough to pay for the emancipation of his wife Beck. He becomes a successful carpenter, but instead of working to buy Beck's freedom, he devotes much of his time toward building a church for the local congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, led by another free black man, the Reverend Brown. Though the free men are treated fairly by Beck's master, the magistrate Colonel Monroe, Denmark becomes increasingly impatient and unwilling to accept the dominance of white society. He is appalled by the patience of Reverend Brown, who allocates part of the church's collections to buy freedom for one slave per year. After Reverend Brown's grant of $500 proves insufficient for Denmark to buy Beck from Colonel Monroe, who is unwilling to sell her at any price as she has become his concubine, he's driven to revolt. Denmark draws upon the Old Testament for justification, citing the verse from Exodus in which God commands to Moses "Whoever steals a man, whether he sells or keeps him, shall be put to death." Told he is no Moses, Denmark replies, "You don't know that."

Drawing partly upon his religious education and partly upon African mysticism taught to him by the slave Omar Sewell, Denmark quietly plans his insurrection, which was said to have enlisted some 9,000 insurgents to the cause. Though the plans were betrayed by Reverend Brown before they could be carried out, the boldness of the plot was allegedly sufficient to change the nature of race relations in pre-Civil War Charleston and improve conditions for freed blacks and slaves to some degree.

What draws a man to become a hero or martyr? What forces move him to sacrifice a comfortable or at least tolerable existence and risk for imprisonment or worse? Must this strength come from something as other-worldly as black magic or a God as the Judeo-Christian tradition has defined God? Smith deftly delivers these themes through complex characters that whether black or white are neither completely good, nor completely bad, and who seem real and contemporary without being sounding anachronistic. Denmark could use more of an arc, though. The first act seems to go not very far in its hour of playing time, and Smith wearyingly constructs much of the play as two-person dialogues involving Denmark and one other character. Director Dennis Zaèek does him no favors by simply moving Denmark from stage left to stage right and back whenever the scene shifts the dialogue to a different character.

The cast is anchored by the charismatic performance of Anthony Fleming III, who, while onstage most of the two hour and twenty minute playing time, is an athletic and magnetic Denmark. In the play's early scenes, his youthful character seems able to literally fly as he jumps with a dancer's grace in the presence of his lady-love Beck, played smartly and toughly by Velma Austin. Raoul Johnson, Joe Van Slyke and A.C. Smith capture the contradictions inherent in their characters: Johnson's slave trader Captain Vesey, who is troubled by conscience but also acts out of self-interest; Van Slyke's Colonel Monroe, who sees himself kind and fair to the blacks but draws a line when his personal well-being is threatened; and the Reverend Brown, committed to his people but unwilling to risk the precarious balance he has built with the white men. Keen E. Head is intriguing as the mystic Omar, and Gregory Lush provides comic relief as the unambiguous Reverend Canker, who insists Reverend Brown can't really be a pastor because he possesses no vestments.

Mary Griswold's set places the action on a cold and grey unit set resembling some sort of dungeon. The action opens on Denmark in custody for his leadership of the planned revolt, and the set supports the suggestion that the story, told in flashback, is being relived by Denmark as he awaits his fate. The lighting design of Robert Shook helps establish the different locales of the story as played out in Denmark's mind.

While Smith's new play could benefit from another draft or two, Victory Gardens' new mainstage —the completely renovated Biograph Theatre - is entirely finished and is a stunning new addition to Chicago's theaters. The architectural firm of Daniel P. Coffey and Associates, designers of the restorations of the city's Chicago, Cadillac Palace and Oriental Theatres completely gutted the old movie theater to make room for the 299-seat theater. It boasts stadium seating and clear sightlines for its proscenium stage and a stunning and warm contemporary lobby. The lobby can accommodate a full house, but was small enough to keep the opening night audience sufficiently crowded to provide an appropriate sense of occasion.

Denmark runs at the Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln, through November 12, 2006. For tickets and information, call the Victory Gardens Box Office (773) 871-3000, or go to

Photo: Liz Lauren

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