Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
A Human Being, of a Sort
Also see Fred's review of Outside Mullingar
In 1906, a youthful Congolese man named Ota Benga (Antonio Michael Woodard) is placed in a cage at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. To make certain that Ota stays in place, a black man whose nickname is Smokey (André Braugher) is assigned to guard Ota. Smokey, himself, is a prisoner. He pilfered some apples and had to serve time. Thus, we have someone who is convicted watching another human being who has been forcefully placed in captivity.
The head of the Bronx Zoological Park is William Temple Hornaday (Frank Wood), a white man. Initially, he discusses with Smokey just how important it is to keep a close eye upon Ota. Three black minsters come along: Reverend William Slater (Sullivan Jones), Reverend George Sims (Keith Randolph Smith), and Reverend James Gordon (Jeorge Bennett Watson). While the public is quite taken with the exhibit of the pygmy at the zoo, the clergymen are not in favor of holding someone within the bars of a cage as people gape at him. The reverends attempt to influence Smokey.
The catch in any scheme for Smokey is that, as he facilitates further liberation for Ota, it might be to his own detriment. Smokey is attempting to gain his freedom and this could be jeopardized if he advocates for Ota. Still, during the second act of this play which in entirety runs just over two hours, Smokey goes to Mr. Hornaday and recommends that Ota be given "a break."
By now, Ota and Smokey have developed a friendship. Payne's absorbing script also includes moments of levity. The two men, one very large in stature (Smokey) and the other far more compact (Ota), enjoy one another's presence. Director Whitney White gives them time together, without others, for back-and-forth discussion. There is a lovely scene in which the two men sit at the very front of the stage and try to figure it all out. These moments are quite precious. Shortly thereafter, Ota delivers an insightful monologue to the audience.
Watching the play, it feels that it is all truthsuch, to his credit, is the authenticity of Payne's dialogue. Yet, there is, evidently, no record of Ota Benga's thought process or his actual words. Payne imaginatively and quite successfully paints and endows this man with purpose, aspiration and, above all, a drive to become emancipated.
Late in the play, a final character named Samuel Phillips Verner (Matthew Saldivar) enters. Without divulging too much plot, his is a pivotal role but I wish his presence could somehow have been integrated into the show far earlier. As it is, this appearance, which does provide framework and context for everything, feels too much like an add-on rather than a key component.
A Human Being is exceptionally well enacted as talented leads André Braugher (with numerous credits including an Emmy Award) and Antonio Michael Woodard (a Brown University M.F.A. graduate) snare attention with each word and movement on stage. Lawrence E. Moten III has furnished a set which is dominated by a larger than life cage. Behind and above it, on a rear wall, various stuffed heads of slain animals stare forward. Mr. Hornaday, zoo administrator, sits at a wooden desk to the side.
This is a brand new play and a fascinating one. Payne has said that it was some years back, when he was in a Barnes & Noble, that he came across the book, "Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga," by Pamela Newkirk. Payne mused upon how a human being could stand such constriction within a primate house. The playwright imaginatively draws focus to the forced display of a real individual. Payne's vision and writing dexterity follow. The exhibit is, one gathers, popular and winning, but at what price?
A Human Being, of a Sort, through through July 7, 2019, at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, 1000 Main St., Williamstown MA. For tickets, call 413-458-3253 or visit wtfestival.org.