Ed Swidey as Tom and Langston Darby as Haley in EgoPo's Uncle Tom's Cabin: An Unfortunate History. Photo by Jenna Kuerzi.
Ed Swidey as Tom and Langston Darby as Haley in EgoPo’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: An Unfortunate History. Photo by Jenna Kuerzi.

A few years ago I read Anne Bogart’s collection of essays A Director Prepares, and was shocked—and a bit overwhelmed—by her treatment of concepts like Violence, Sexuality and Stereotype in the rehearsal room.

All of these concepts, she asserts, can benefit the group by being confronted rather than avoided.

In Stereotype, she describes a piece she co-created in 1991 called American Vaudeville. It was part of a three-play exploration of American entertainment history, and what they found was that in order to genuinely represent vaudeville, they could not avoid that most infamous of performances: the minstrel show.

“We did not want to comment on the material, or put a spin on it, or put quotation marks around the event,” she says. “But we did want to light a fire under the enactment of the minstrel show with our own wakefulness and empathy.”

Minstrelsy emerged from a distinctly American tradition—it could not have happened anywhere else—of people from various backgrounds coming together and satirizing their own cultures. It was such a popular standard of stage entertainment at the time that it became America’s first theatrical export to Europe, with white and black minstrel companies touring the Continental cities.

Now, the minstrel show is the iconic racially exploitative entertainment. It hearkens back to slavery and reinforces the oppressive divide between races. Also, it is so frightfully taboo that, like a collectively repressed personal trauma, it evokes powerful emotions when confronted. No one today, with good intention, would perform a minstrel show simply for entertainment.

Yet confronting that taboo, that collection of dances and gestures and costumes representative of interracial violence and subjugation, is becoming more and more frequently attractive as a way of exploring and perhaps healing a collective historical fracture.

In 2010 The Scottsboro Boys opened at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City. The play is about nine African-American boys who, in 1931 Alabama, were accused of a rape that never happened. In a manner which wraps itself up boldly in American historical racism, the story is told as a minstrel show, complete with blackface performances by the “boys” (played by African American actors).

People who had never seen the play protested Scottsboro Boys in the streets and called it out for being racist. Though it was easily absolved of these claims by those who saw it—it so clearly presented the vaudeville element as part of the very racism which was unjustly damning the characters—the very existence the minstrel show in it inflamed sensibilities across the city.

On Friday at Plays and Players Theater here in Philadelphia, EgoPo Classic Theater opened the curtain on their adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The play, entitled Uncle Tom’s Cabin: An Unfortunate History once again opened the door to modern American theater’s controversial ancestry. Stowe’s pre-civil war novel has always been heatedly debated: though abolitionist to many (to Lincoln, Stowe was “the little lady who started the Civil War”), some activists labeled it complacent, and of course the South despised it and reacted heavily against it.

Nevertheless, it was immediately adapted into multiple theatrical versions, and over time became the most seen play in American history. This continued into the vaudeville years, when, with copyright laws being fairly flimsy, the adaptations strayed further and further from the source material, and Stowe’s novel was used very often as a base for minstrel performances.

Though these shows might not have intended to be racist, they represent an infantilization of a subjugated race by its oppressors, and a continued capitalization on blacks by whites, for entertainment and for money. Minstrelsy characters are cartoonish, simplistic, unintelligent and damagingly stereotypical.

The roots of these performances is explored in EgoPo’s Uncle Tom. At the very start of the play, two slavers (hot in a debate about the nature of the minds and souls of slaves) order little Henry to come out and dance for them. Henry enters with a grim, dull look on his face and slumped shoulders. He begins to dance—and his body and features animate, a wide grin illuminating white teeth, his arms swinging and his legs flashing about dexterously. The dance ends, and Henry immediately deflates, the dull, reduced posture of his servitude returning to his figure.

By showing this dynamic juxtaposition in the first scene, EgoPo reveals that they are, like Bogart, not “putting quotations” around the minstrel show, but lighting a fire under it with wakefulness and empathy.

To complicate matters for EgoPo, in January, director Lane Savadove announced that he would be using cross-race casting in his production. (So little Henry, dancing in the above scene, was performed by a light-skinned hispanic woman.) Of course this enflamed sensibilities. Savadove has stated over the last six months numerous reasons for this choice, one being that there are not enough good roles for African American actors, and he did not want to hand out slave roles to them. Yet many of the best roles in Uncle Tom are slave roles.

Another explanation, and a more relevant one, was that it did not seem productive, at this time and in Philadelphia, to show whites enslaving blacks, and that such a performance would only strengthen the divide between the races.

A number of articles sprung up questioning the choice, such as this one in the PhillyMag, or this one on the Clyde Fitch Report, and whether or not it was made simply to be “edgy”—as EgoPo describes themselves as producing “classic theater on the edge.” In the PhillyMag article, playwright Quinn Eli asks a question which, while valid enough, presumes an intention for the show which is not present: “I’ll find it difficult to absorb the image of whites in place of blacks as slaves,” says Eli. ”And I question how effective it will be for white members of the audience who won’t have to take the horror of what happened to those who it actually happened to.”

Eli’s several complaints—much more constructively put than the Scottsboro protestors in New York—illustrate our complex relationship with minstrelsy and even race relations in general. The play, he suggests, might be harder to absorb because of the cross-race casting, and yet easier as well. A play like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, according to Eli and others, has an obligation focus, first and foremost, on the horrors of slavery for the enslaved.

For Savadove, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: An Unfortunate History (which I reviewed on Art Attack here) is, rather, an opportunity to explore, collectively, the divisive and destructive history which we as a people share. For him, swapping the roles was a way to help do that. While any production of Uncle Tom’s cannot avoid the “horror”, he is not more interested in that side of things than he is in the humanity.

Several weeks ago Cate Shortland’s movie Lore showed at the Ritz in Philadelphia. The play, about the children of two SS officers in Germany at the end of the war, was remarkable in that it explored the roots of prejudice and oppression without focusing on the oppressed. Their parents imprisoned, Lore has to lead her younger siblings through areas controlled by Allied soldiers to reach their relatives’ house, and safety. She carries her parents’ hatreds with her, but is forced to accept help from a Jewish boy.

The Nazi culture is openly explored here, today, from the perspective of the oppressors. Our slave culture, while being older, is much deeper, and has reverberations which remain in the forefronts of our minds. Quinn Eli said that EgoPo’s cross-race casting “presupposes that a lot of our notions about race have changed more dramatically than I think they have.” I do hope that, over more than a century, they have changed somewhat. I hope that we are able to see one-another from a realistic, compassionate perspective. Yet the reality is that Philadelphia is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and those wounds run deep.