By Richard Chomps Thompson
Hope starts in the dark. Sometimes as a dream. Sometimes as wish. Sometimes as a prayer. Hope is born in that struggle to claim the love that is the self and to truly acknowledge who we are without shame. It’s hope that allows us to cross that chasm of the soul. E. Reid Gilbert moves us through shamble and triumph in this journey of hope in his latest production Ellen Craft: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom currently playing at The Community Playhouse.
Expanding from anecdotal in his story-telling, Gilbert continues his ability to introduce his audience to history, race-relations, regional colloquialism, and oral tradition. At once examining the heartache caused by two people trying to find freedom in self-proclamation, we are thrust into a discourse of how we truly communicate ourselves to one another – and as such witness who we really are.
Begun in a low hymn in the dark, we are invited to listen to the story of the Narrator (Regina Wills), who joyously explains how she learned of her , and how she learned more about herself because she was able to know more about her history. Wills brings a deftness and candor in each of the monologues, readings, and hymns performed.
The Narrator reads from her great-great grandmother’s journal that is interpreted into scenes before us. This method of storytelling provides historical content, anecdotal musings, and even reiterates scenes just staged to provide additional context to the tale of Ellen Craft (Robin Carson) and William Craft (Dante Crossroad) through their arduous, taxing journey through Georgia in desperation to achieve freedom.
The story of Ellen Craft is told in a way that spans more than distance; it requires a telling that spans through time and director Edward Young was able to provide a solid pacing of the storied events when long periods of time would span in-between, while other moments were much more condensed. The ability to tie such integral, yet vastly disparate points together is a testament to the writer and director’s ability to weave a multi-generational story together while using multiple storytelling methods and avoiding traps of novelty.
It’s on the white painted porch of the Smith plantation that we first learn of how much love Ellen would meet from her kinfolk. Or perhaps that word is too close for comfort as we learn during a contentious – and one assumes routine – argument between James and Ethel Smith (Scott Berg and Bobbi Whitson) on what to do with the dirty little secret with which James Smith has propagated the house. Whitson provides a performance that is delightful in her horrid cruelty. She makes a scythe from a small Victorian fan that both cools her face and slices the air around her.
Born from James Smith and an unknown slave, Ellen would be the topic of concern for the entire Smith plantation from her inception. A child who was both good enough to keep around and bad enough to keep around, while simultaneously being the bad one that was never around for the good of it. If up to Ethel, her delegitimatized step daughter would have gone the way of other secrets if not for the decision of the patriarch. Just one example of how status and communication bore a direct connection to identity and its importance throughout all aspects of southern living. Women obeyed men. Ethel had a venom in her word, spitting out poison from a realization that her place was behind her husband while at the same time understanding her place in front of her property.
Stand-out performances include Shannon Oliver playing Mary Smith, who in one short scene illustrates a generation of malicious virtue signaling Ellen’s half-sister (by whom Ellen herself was owned). Oliver sweetly pronounces statements of naive dehumanization that is even more terrifying because this disregard for Ellen’s humanity didn’t stem from hate. It stemmed from something far worse; indifference. It was with the cruelest of smiles and the lightest of hearts when Oliver reminded Ellen how happy she should be to be owned by her sister! She had no hate in those words, and that one line resonates today.
The characters include a diverse cascade of bureaucratic and oppositional characters, from apathetic customs officers who care more about personal inconveniences than the wellbeing of another. One notable is the character Government Agent (Stephen Dunham) brought to a bureaucratically cold effect in which the fugitive duo encounter. He is the cold professionalism that marks a terrifying pretense that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. In this corner office, the clear message is that while a sword will always be known to take a life, this pen will rob one of their identity.
Robin Carson, playing Ellen Craft, was tasked with the responsibility of playing a character whose ethnicity may not have come from the same heritage, but does note negate the understanding of how self-worth and freedom of identity is a human struggle, and not gifted to only one man or woman. Carson portrayed a humanistic quality that didn’t delve into the over-dramatic while also resonating emotionally through small sighs and wistful glances.
Dante Crossroad (an amazing name by the way!) playing Ellen’s husband and in-disguise manservant, William (‘Eurassa’), is able to look out from the stage and emote so swiftly and magnetically he easily expresses the meaningful richness behind his character, honoring the theatricality required to express such emotional cadence that straddles the wall of character and caricature. Crossroad is a formidable new actor on the scene.
This disturbing paradox of human inhumanity could only have been told through dialogue. Gilbert’s ability to emphasize the linguistic roots that bear fruit to this line of institutionalized hatred is masterful because of his skills in connecting these same themes as they affect us today. Without a doubt, this element of dialogue is a character unto itself.
The words spoken to the protagonists along with other African-Americans that delegitimize, marginalize or dissociate have only shifted into new letter combinations. These lines are spoken today; they haven’t left. And those that would see them fester in the dark until they can grow unwieldy, or those who would like to pretend that by locking them away, we won’t have to confront them again; we do nothing but safely suffocate our virtues in a pitch-black room.
The use of language and terminology was proficient. It is hurtful to hear but necessary to experience. Gilbert has no qualm using harsh language and using it in a way that disturbs the watcher. As it should. Be prepared to hear some very disturbing language and sound effects that flesh out the world of 1835 Georgia.
The Community Playhouse is known for impressive stage design and this show is no different. Created by Berg and Whitson, they handcrafted 180 degrees of stage to show Ellen’s cabin, the vastness of the Smith plantation she was owed to, and a little nook in a modern apartment where we read the journal. As the story continues into the second act, the white and green of the plantation is transformed into a transit line that becomes the center of travel and concern for the remainder the story.
The elaborate set changes are interwoven with an interesting and effective use of sound effects that provide even more effect to specific scenes; a wedding mired with the sound of a man being whipped; a woman praying as dogs bark searching for a runaway; the heavy molasses of Regina Wills vocalizations.
Some concepts are introduced that are hard to articulate in the small time given. Moments of backstory that indicate cowardice found in even in those who want to believe themselves as redeemed men; such as the slave owner who, when he died, had intended to free all his slaves. This brave white slave owner will wait to die before dealing with the social ramifications of doing what’s right because of the judgment from evil men and women that would befall him for doing what is truly humane. The judgement was not worth a single slave’s life while he himself breathed. This is the fallacy of those who extol moral superiority, while perpetuating through action (or inaction) the same system that they are trying to expose.
The story itself is one that deserves more attention. It expresses the duality that black men face in how they live every day and that even when acting right; they are acting wrong.
A point that I am having a hard time dismissing is the number of white roles versus the number of roles for blacks in this piece. It could be argued that the use of many Caucasian characters helped portray the isolation that Ellen and William felt, but I am unsure that was an intentional theme being presented. In a socially aware theatrical production regarding the lives of two black people fighting for visibility of their own being this seems like a situation of good intentions perpetuating harmful practices. There are 22+ white roles versus 4-5 roles for blacks regarding a story where blacks are undervalued, mistreated, and maligned. The irony that this ensemble piece had a cast where less than 25% were black is indicative of social reformations that are still necessary despite sympathetic minds to the cause.
But maybe that’s the idea; Paradox of identity and truth. Like when William speaks differently depending on who he is talking to, perhaps this is the real meaning behind Ellen and her husband; how to be themselves where people’s constant inability to accept another will always be apparent; a cruel goose hunt where there will never be a way to be right, because there is only one way to be white. And in one way, it’s through Gilbert’s words that this exploration can illustrate the inherent dynamic of how easy it is for people to denigrate and familiarize. Take apart and make of. But that the truth of the self is still found in ever-enduring love and the struggle of freedom for the self is not a story of A dark hope. A hope in the dark.
Richard Thompson (Actor) was born in Kokomo, Indiana. He has no relevant education from any formal institution in theater or film. His writing career comprises of columnist work for The Arizona Daily Star, editor for Persona Magazine, content creator of Looking Back manuscript for P.C.C., Sandscript Magazine contributor, and editor and columnist for Gourmet News for which he received a James Beard nomination for his article, “Holy See-Food”. He is also a Hearst Poet and a published IEEE author (2018-2019), as well as a technical writer whose proposals, grants and speeches have totaled in over $250k in gained between 2016 to now. Since 2017, The Community Players produced his stage play, Last Call, followed by performances in No Admittance (Bill Bowen) and One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest (Chief), numerous Radio Theater shows, backstage crew for ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) as well as multiple roles in musical shows. In 2018, he worked under Eugenia Wood in Hark, with Ron Athey, Cassils, and Arshia Fatima in Cyclic, and produced his original manuscript The GRANDest Pageant. Films include Rise, The Righteous Twelve, and The GRANDest Pageant. In 2019, he founded Graveyard Production Company (www.gyproco.com) and will perform Exist.