History plays

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  January 29, 2010

Moving backward in the shameful annals of African-American struggle, Lydia R. Diamond's Harriet Jacobs — which is in its East Coast premiere from Underground Railway Theater in collaboration with Providence Black Repertory Company (at Central Square Theater through January 31) — trumps the luridness of Harriet Beecher Stowe to present a slave account that also examines why we need to know about an atrocity well reported but "slightly beyond knowing." Based on Jacobs's 1861 memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the play wraps its account of cruelty, harassment, and escape in a blanket of African-American spiritual and its bright young heroine's need not just to tell her story but also to comprehend it.

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HARRIET JACOBS: Kami Rushell Smith, Ramona Lisa Alexander, and Sheldon Best ponder an America in which there was no civil-rights movement.

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in 19th-century North Carolina, and as a teen she survived the curiously hands-off sexual imprecations of a master who refused her black suitor's offer to buy her freedom. She bore two children to a younger slave owner who appealed to her vitality; then she fled, though not far. Before escaping to the North in 1842, she spent seven years holed up in a crawl space above her freed grandmother's bake shop enduring a "darkness darker than black" that, sparked by imagination, became "brighter than the most blinding light." It was here, the future author tells us, that she found her voice — though I'd like to have seen more of the hunt.

Megan Sandberg-Zakian helms the fluid production, its scenes connected by mournful, well-sung musical bridges and the rotation by the actors of set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers's wooden cabin that suggests various locales including, in its rafters, our heroine's cramped aerie. Kami Rushell Smith is a lively Harriet, her need for meaning palpable. And there are fine supporting turns by an all-black cast that, by resisting caricature, renders the privileged white characters the more chilling. Ramona Lisa Alexander is the watchful grandmother, Kortney Adams a quietly gloating Mistress Norcom, Sheldon Best Harriet's shyly teasing suitor. And as coolly lecherous Master Norcom, hip-hop artist Raidge, sporting dreadlocks and white gloves, is creepier than any mustachio-twisting, ice-cube-hopping villain immortalized by Stowe.

True, he's not Coriolanus or Shylock. But is Macbeth's Duncan really so boring that, were he to trade places with an ordinary citizen, no one would notice — not even eldest son Malcolm? Well, maybe, if the kid were caught up in a gay love affair with Banquo's kid, Fleance. Such are the premises of Canadian writer Chris Craddock's Indulgences (presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through February 6), a somewhat arbitrary farce that purports to be a consideration of free will but comes closer to what you might call free wheel.

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard considers the existential fate of a couple of supernumeraries without throwing out the bathwater that is Hamlet. Craddock just borrows Malcolm and Fleance, mixing them into a hit-and-miss, hardly philosophic mash-up that also draws on Mamet, Milton, and Mark Twain. Billed as a "fractured fairytale" in the time-honored tradition of Rocky and Bullwinkle, New Rep's Indulgences floats a contemporary, Plexiglas-furnished tavern before a two-dimensional classical setting. No one but the audience, however, notices the incongruity as Cheers bumps up against Shakespeare in Love.

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