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Saturday, 03 November 2012 13:54

Free Blacks confronted by slavery in Black Rep premiere

Written by Robert Ashton
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Free Blacks confronted by slavery in Black Rep premiere

In 1859, Baltimore was home to 25,000 free blacks but with abolitionism and talk of secession growing their world is changing. 'Facing the Shadows', a Black Rep premiere of a play by Sheila Payton performing at the Missouri History Museum, tells the story of a group of women trying to live a free life confronted with a run-away slave and a potentially life-changing decision.

The action takes place in the parlor of Alice Adams (Jeanitta Perkins) as she prepares for the monthly meeting of The Free Women of Color Literary Society. She is assisted by Sarah (Candice Jeanine), who is a slave hired out by her master to a white family in Baltimore because of her needlework skills, leaving her twelve year old daughter, Rachel (Carli Officer) behind. Sarah is giving some of her limited free time to help Alice. The set and costumes by Linda Kennedy, who also directed, are very effective in establishing the time and setting.

Unfortunately, the show gets off to a slow start. Ms. Payton's use of long monologues to describe slavery and the increasing prejudice to free blacks, although well delivered by Perkins and Jeanine, does not really produce a good pace in the opening scene. Worse is a very long scene where really nothing happens except Sarah brings out food.

Once the other ladies of the Society arrive the show kicks into life, particularly with an energy-filled performance frm Caress Davis as Violet. She is joined by Evelyn (LaQuesha "Blaque Pearl" Harris) and Cora (Alicia Revé). Although this is a literary society most of their talk naturally turns to the hardening attitudes of the whites to the very existence of free blacks, made worse by Irish and German immigrants threating jobs held by the free blacks. Alice is clearly the one who wants to keep a low profile and is concerned about the black working class whose "bad behavior" can reflect on the whole race. Evelyn is much more radical and the confrontations between Perkins and Harris in these two roles are some of the highlights of the show. Always late, the final member of the group is Victoria (Laurel Elliot), who is convincing as the more intellectual and activist of the group.

Without giving away the plot too much, with the discovery of run-away slave in the home Alice feels that her trust has been betrayed and she and her family put at great risk – for harboring a run-away her family could be sold back into slavery – and argues the run-away must leave. The women's debate over this is interrupted by the arrival of the arrogant, racist Mason Lovejoy (Paul Cooper) who is looking for the runaway. The tension of the scene was unfortunately undermined by some physical action by one of the actors. I'm not sure of the intention of the actor/director but there was a lot of audience laughter at what seemed to be an incongruous moment.

Although there were some issues with the script and staging (including significant problems with lines on opening night), this is a show worth seeing. As part of the History Museum's season featuring women's history, the author also explores a less well-known section of African-American history but does not present the issues, to quote one of the characters, as "black and white", in all senses of that expression. These women, with their own biases and flaws, have to make choices between family and a hugely unjust system that the whole nation was about to face as it headed to a brutal civil war.

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