By Ray Yamanouchi; Directed by Axel Avin, Jr.
Produced by New Light Theater Project
Off Off Broadway, Play
Ran through 2.16.19
13th Street Repertory Company, 50 West 13th Street
by Dan Rubins on 2.18.19
Danie Steel in The American Tradition. Photo by Jody Christopherson.
BOTTOM LINE: A century-bending, darkly funny interrogation of America's racist past and present, The American Tradition does something new.
When are we, exactly? The walls of the 13th Street Rep surround the audience with a tapestry of posters from the complete history of U. S. race relations: Black Panther Party insignias intertwine with minstrel show advertisements, while KKK recruitment signs and Black Lives Matter logos encircle each other with no sense of timeline. The cast of The American Tradition, Ray Yamanouchi’s startlingly fresh new play, wear costumes that dip in and out of the pre-Civil War South, sampling jeans and hoodies amongst the vests and top hats. And there’s no way people said things like, “You’re in the friend zone” and “My bad” a century and a half ago.
But that anachronism is the trippy fuel that allows The American Tradition to get so much done in so little time. Yes, it’s a play about slavery, but from the title inwards, there’s no tiptoeing around the fact that Yamanouchi aims to imprint enslavement's effects on the soul upon our own understanding of all the racial cruelty and injustice since emancipation. And precisely because The American Tradition pays no mind to historical accuracy, it can use its heated 70 minutes to dig in searingly to the burning rage of the enslaved as it draws that taut line between past and present.
Eleanor (Sydney Cole Alexander) and Bill (Martin K. Lewis) make a break for freedom, with the quarter-black Eleanor using her light skin to disguise as a white male planter traveling with his faithful slave. When the couple get separated by an alcoholic, hate-spewing member of the “Not All Slavers” movement (Alex Herrald), Eleanor enlists the help of a revolver and an overzealous white abolitionist (Hunter Canning) to find her way back to Bill.
Director Axel Avin, Jr. stages an unsettling, momentum-building production that follows, per Yamanouchi’s instructions in the script, the Brechtian technique of alienation, with much dialogue delivered at a galloping pace out to the audience, and gunshots produced by actors popping balloons and clapping wood blocks together in plain sight. The audience, predominantly white at the performance I attended, seemed uneasy about how or when to respond, feeling freest to laugh at Canning’s white liberal antics: his character insists he doesn’t see color and begs Eleanor to be his one black friend so he can have “credibility” as an ally.
Yamanouchi’s invitation for white audiences to find the funny in what may well be a reflection of themselves paves the path for a gut-punch of an explosion, as Rose (Danie Steel), an enslaved woman forced to recite a speech praising her master over and over until it is word-perfect, finds a way to express the utter inexpressibility of her anger. The American Tradition, for all the stage time it gives to the most extreme Southern racists, won’t let anyone, white or otherwise, off the hook either: when Bill tries to help Rose escape, she tells him, “You men fight against the white master while stepping on the backs of black women.”
Alexander, Lewis, and Steel all do justice to roles that permit them to push back against narratives that praise historically enslaved people only for their quiet virtue. Even as the play asks whether dehumanizing violence deserves dehumanizing violence in return—Eleanor and Rose seem to take opposing views—the inherent humanity of fury itself has seldom been argued for so eloquently.
Although The American Tradition opens with a prologue depicting the execution-style murder of a white man, accompanied by the reciting of names of police brutality victims like Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland, it concludes with a speech meant to suggest the morphing of the slaver into our current president. Yamanouchi’s decision not to close the loop with a clear conclusion that fully explicates the opening tableaux is perhaps a bi-product of the play’s intense determination to put centuries of multi-faceted injustice all onstage at once. And there’s so much at play that the initial pointed focus on colorism—and Eleanor’s grappling with what it means to pass as white and thereby pass as free—gets somewhat lost along the way.
The American Tradition is a fast-talking, passionate, messy work of art, but it’s one that, in just over an hour, grants its muffled heroes the time to say anything they’ve always wanted to.
(The American Tradition played at 13th Street Repertory Company through February 16, 2019. The running time was 70 minutes, no intermission. The performance schedule was Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 3 and 7:30; and Sundays at 3. Tickets were $25. For more information visit newlighttheaterproject.com.)
The American Tradition is by Ray Yamanouchi. Directed by Axel Avin, Jr. Set Design is by Brian Dudkiewicz. Lighting Design is by Elaine Wong. Music and Sound Design are by Enrico de Trizio. Costume Design is by Samantha Rose Lind. Fight Direction is by Leighton Samuels. Stage Manager is Chelsea Olivia Friday.
The cast is Sydney Cole Alexander, Hunter Canning, Alex Herrald, Martin K. Lewis, Danie Steel.