Edward R. Murrow once observed that we are not the descendants of fearful men. I'd like to say that playwright Howard Craft reacquaints us with one particularly courageous forefather, Abraham Galloway, in THE FIRE OF FREEDOM, which just premiered in Redbird, the promising new one-act play festival produced by ArtsCenter Stage.
But for most, the stirring solo show starring Jade Arnold will constitute a grossly overdue first encounter, not a reunion, with the former slave turned militant abolitionist and spy who helped change the outcome of the Civil War by organizing the first African-American regiments of Union troops in North Carolina.
After the war, Galloway's skills as an orator and political organizer made him the first African-American elected to the state senate. Despite these achievements, as historian David Cecelski notes in the 2012 book on which the play is based, Galloway is numbered among "a revolutionary generation of African-American activists that has largely been forgotten." Cecelski's book countered that neglect; Craft's eloquent script and Arnold's vivid performance as Galloway further the enterprise considerably.
Under Chaunesti Webb's direction, Arnold swaggers across the stage, regaling a group of freedmen and runaways with tales of dangerous escapes, far more dangerous captures, foreign affairs and—most dear of all to his audience—pure, unadulterated freedom. "Remember the first time you breathed it in, how your skin tingled?" Galloway exults. "Your first meal, how it tasted better than any meal before it, even if that meal was nuts and berries found in a wood?"
Galloway's audience has sought his counsel prior to negotiating with President Lincoln's representative, Edward Kinsley, to join the Union forces. It's an hour before the historic clandestine meeting, on a spring evening in 1863, in the attic of a house in New Bern. It would seem that the group's options in a Confederacy state are few.
But Galloway has already worked with the Union—and lived, if at times just barely, to tell the story. He knows that the only reason an American president would send a personal envoy to meet with them is that the military and political calculus has changed; Lincoln has concluded that he cannot win the war without their help.
Though the audacity of Galloway's advice—and the singularly unorthodox tone of the negotiations he's about to undertake—should be common knowledge among North Carolinians, they are likely to surprise most viewers. But after witnessing this history firsthand, they are not likely to forget it.
On opening night, Webb, Craft and Arnold were still smoothing out some rough transitions when Galloway briefly impersonates people he's encountered on the long road to freedom. Distracting, if momentary, tectonic friction remains between some of the stories collected here. Still, this welcoming Fire warms us long after the performance is over.
Correcting the historical record also figures into another regional premiere, Deep Dish Theater Company's production of JOURNEY'S END. Robert Cedric Sherriff's wartime drama, which came out of nowhere to become the most popular play in London in 1929, has aged remarkably well.
As dramaturge John Harris notes, Sherriff, a captain in the First World War, fashioned this fictionalized account of life among an average band of British army officers to reflect his own experiences in the conflict, countering what George Bernard Shaw termed the "romantic conception of war."
We meet them just as they're rotating onto a six-day tour of duty in the trenches on the edge of No Man's Land, somewhere in northern France, eight months before the end of World War I. Raleigh, a green recruit who has just enlisted out of school, finds none of the derring-do he had imagined on the front lines. Instead, he meets a small, mostly determined group of officers grinding through endless hours, waiting for something to happen while dreading that very possibility. Stanhope, Raleigh's old rugby captain at school, is their leader—a man transformed by battle into a misshapen figure of self-loathing.
Under Karen O'Brien's direction, Gus Allen clearly suggests a doomed Liam Neeson type as the tortured Stanhope, while Eric Carl is bedrock-solid as Osborne, the older second-in-command. Max Bitar is poignant as the clueless young Raleigh, and strong supporting work from Doug Lally, Carl Martin and David Hudson covers the occasional misstep in other roles along the margins.
It's no criticism of this production to note that one of its most affecting moments involves a single sound cue, in the dark, after the end of a particular scene. As we all waited for whatever was going to happen next, we got a momentary glimpse of what that instant had to be like for the characters. We were grateful when it quickly passed.
As a score of playwrights and film directors have reminded us, new neighbors aren't always to be trusted. That's particularly the case in playwright and director Dana Coen's new Redbird one-act, PROPERTY, as Barry and Priscilla (Alex Thompson and Melanie Rio), a young couple escaping Seattle for a simpler life in the countryside of Washington, first encounter the inscrutable Isaiah (Brandon Rafalson) by flashlight in a darkened room of their new house.
Isaiah's clearly a bit rusty on his social skills as he greets them. He also has a loaded rifle in his lap.
But as Coen's intriguing variation on a theme unfolds, we ultimately have to determine who the real stranger in this trio is. That stays up for grabs as isolation gradually sets in and nature proves far less benign than originally imagined. Sooner or later, each person in this group learns a truth eerily similar to one Abraham Galloway knew a century before. What happens when people fail to consider one another as equals? The enigmatic title of this domestic drama holds the clue. Recommended.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A refining Fire."