The authors of the production's text—Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor—all have impressive resumes that collectively embrace the worlds of theatre, musical theatre, film, and television. Composer Julia Wolfe is a big name in the world of classical music, as are the artists who perform her recorded score: Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval. To top it all off, director Anne Bogart has been Artistic Director of SITI since she founded it with Tadashi Suzuki in 1992.
With that much going for it, it's a shame that "Steel Hammer" wasn't better. The concept is a good one: a play with movement and music based on a historically informed version of the legend of that "steel drivin' man" John Henry. Apparently inspired by Scott Reynolds Nelson's 2006 book "Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend," "Steel Hammer" posits that John Henry was based on a real character: John William Henry, a New Jersey–born free black man who went to Reconstruction-Era Virginia to find work, was imprisoned on trumped-up charges (as so many black men were in the Reconstruction South), and was farmed out as convict labor to build railroad tunnels.
"Steel Hammer" uses the character's mythic status to build a chronological through line that credibly connects slavery, Jim Crow laws, and segregation with today's system of privatized, for-profit prisons. Convict labor, the play suggests, is just another form of slavery—one that always seems to fall most heavily on the backs of black Americans.
Unfortunately, the creators of "Steel Hammer" don't seem to have much faith in the spoken word as a vehicle for their concept. I realize that's a matter of philosophical conviction, going back to the "Viewpoints" technique (originally developed by Mary Overlie and elaborated upon by Ms. Bogart and Tina Landau) with its insistence that none of the elements of theatre should take precedence over any other. But that didn't make the results any more convincing.
Most of the show's two-hour running time is taken up with long scenes of repetitive movement (some of which rose to the level of dance) accompanied by equally minimalist and repetitive recorded music. The opening scene, for example, consisted of the full cast repeatedly striking a series of a half-dozen or so poses that represented the main elements of John Henry's story: manual labor, captivity, struggle, and death. It went on for several minutes, long after it had made its dramatic point and had become boring—if not actively annoying.
This proved to be a pattern that repeated throughout the evening. At one point the actors did nothing more than run in circles around the outside of the platform that served as the primary playing area. After around ten minutes of that I began to wonder if the creators of "Steel Hammer" might be (to paraphrase an Anna Russell line about a certain type of contemporary composer) trying to get away with something. But then, a lot of post-modernism has the effect on me.
For me, "Steel Hammer" truly came to life only during the rare moments when actual words were spoken. At one point, for example, Henry (Eric Berryman, in a truly spectacular performance) yearns for freedom and a reunion with his wife (Patrice Johnson Chevannes, very impressive here and in other roles in the show). In another, Berryman is treated as the subject of a series of lectures on the Henry legend by the rest of the cast. As a satire of the academic treatment of folklore, I thought it worked quite well.
Perhaps the best thing about "Steel Hammer," though, was a monolog in which Ms. Chevannes played an ancient former slave reminiscing about the hard lives of Southern blacks before and after the Civil War and recalling the night she met John Henry. It was a beautiful piece of acting using a solid and compelling script.
There is, I think, a good 45- to 60-minute play in "Steel Hammer." At two hours with no intermission, however, it felt heavily padded and sometimes veered perilously close to self-parody. I also felt that it made physical demands on the cast—and especially on Mr. Berryman—that approached the abusive. By the end of the performance Mr. Berryman was drenched in sweat and looked exhausted. I find it a bit ironic that a play about the evil of pushing a man past the point of physical pain appears to do the same thing to the actor playing that role.
I wanted to like "Steel Hammer." Its historical and political points are valid and important. Alas, its creators have not, in my view, served those points well, however imposing their credentials.