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Role Reversal 

A play based on the controversial novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe upends our ideas of race and gender

Burning Coal Theatre Company's Uncle Tom's Cabin "isn't really a play," according to director Randolph Curtis Rand, "it's an issue." Rand and co-author Floraine Kay blend sentiment and irony, melodrama and burlesque to probe race, power and performance in American culture. When you begin to disentangle entrenched fantasies of racial difference in the United States, it helps to take the long view, as Rand has done by returning to Harriet Beecher Stowe's "amazing, infuriating" 1852 novel. "It created a forum for a national discussion," he said in an interview following the play, adding that the debates over the book since its publication have not divided neatly along racial lines. Rand and Kay have clearly done their research. The play is based on at least a dozen sources, including Stowe's novel (a sprawling work that appeared in National Era magazine in 40 installments as Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, The Man That Was a Thing) and six previous play versions.

To protect yourself from blind immersion in a world of stereotypes and ciphers, you need a firm grasp of the fantasia that is American entertainment. Rand has that sense of context--his interest in melodrama drew him to the project in the first place. He also said that he first encountered Uncle Tom's Cabin in the 1956 film version of The King and I. "America's Folk Play" has a walk-on in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, featuring Yul Brynner as the King of Siam and Deborah Kerr as an English schoolmarm hired to teach the king's children. In a surreal play within a play, excerpts of Uncle Tom's Cabin are performed by members of the king's court, in order to enlighten their noble savage brothers and sisters and their benevolent polygamous dictator about the Western concept of "freedom." In the film, Stowe's didactic fury, aimed at those who treat people as property, is absorbed by Hollywood's own schizophrenic take on "otherness"--evident, for example, in the casting of Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno as the Siamese woman Tuptim.

On one level, Kay and Rand's Uncle Tom's Cabin is a palimpsest of texts rather than a single-voiced narrative. The words, stories, and bodies of others interrupt Stowe's saga. Recitations of slave narratives are interspersed with vigorous civic debates fueled by the words of James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass and George Sand. A comic duo of lab-coated Italian scientists--stand-ins for controversial Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who founded the Human Genome Diversity Project--enact dialogue that confirms the role modern science plays in perpetuating racism. On another level, the play is more interested in the relation of words to performance; it asks the audience to think about what the casting of Rita Moreno as Tuptim says about the way the United States deals with race. The answer is not as simple as it seems.

It's not simple because Uncle Tom's Cabin does not rely solely on the juxtaposition of sentimental fiction and public discourse for its emotional and intellectual impact on spectators. Instead, Rand addresses the most obvious symptoms of racial classification--white supremacy, stereotypes of all kinds and paternalism--by enacting race as a social and performative spectacle. Rand turns differences of gender, sexuality, and regional and national identity into performance by asking each member of the small cast of five principals to inhabit the characters populating Stowe's narrative of perfidy and Christian suffering: Uncle Tom, Little Eva, Eliza and Henry, the St. Clares and Simon LeGree. By refusing to construct a coherent relation between body and text, between actor and character, the play forces the audience to acknowledge the artifice of "identity." It also asks us to recognize varying degrees of comfort and discomfort produced by shifts in power and meaning when, for instance, a white female actor plays the role of Uncle Tom with grins and dialect, and an black male actor renders Little Eva with a high-pitched squeaky voice. This round robin sounds simple, but it's not--which is a tribute to the writing, staging and ensemble acting. It's unsettling to realize, for example, that it's difficult to follow the story when predictable matches of race, gender and age are withheld or appear in rotation with seemingly outlandish pairings. It's even more disturbing to realize how much meaning is lost when the visual identity of the actor happens to match that of the role. The constant short-circuiting of easy identification, along with the ironies and contradictions of the play and its companion texts, produces a distance and a dissonance that invite audience members to question their own performances of gender, race and sexuality. The play teaches us something about the subtle way racial difference works, and those lessons are most apparent when audience expectations are thwarted in intentionally radical, ridiculous and unexpected ways. What seems an obvious reversal of traditional power relations--a black slaveholder whipping a white Uncle Tom--is much more than meets the eye. The performance refuses to honor the facile oppositions (seen in a film like White Man's Burden) and instead magnifies and questions the very physical gestures that signify power.

The play's attempts at edification sneak up on you. The longish first act is an exercise in the carnivalesque; costuming choices intentionally complicate and confound the play's strong sense of irony. And if you haven't read Stowe's book recently, or at least a synopsis of it, you might find the narrative confusing. The better-paced second act builds upon everything that has come before, however. The absurdist and vaudevillian sensibilities of the second act reinforce the idea that moments of honesty or overt sentiment--from the recitation of a slave narrative to the death scenes of Eva and Tom--ought to be weighed carefully. These moments are often less compelling than the frightening and humorous contradictions wrought by text and performer: for example, when Uncle Tom's Christian fervor pours itself into self-righteousness, or when the "good book" Uncle Tom reads to Eva turns out to be neither.

Rand is right to point out that many of the issues Stowe raised in her novel are still with us 148 years later--in the flesh, in the fantasies that pepper our film and television screens, and in our imaginations. Uncle Tom's Cabin seeks to dislodge those fantasies, but in a very particular context--that of "edification, discovery, entertainment and artifice." This is theater, and for Rand it demands of its participants something more than an intellectual or an emotional engagement--it demands both. Uncle Tom's Cabin rewards those who are willing to suspend their own performances just long enough to take a serious look behind them. EndBlock

More by Maria Pramaggiore


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