A House with No Walls at the Herberger Theater Center Fails to Set Free the Emotions Associated with Slavery

A House with No Walls is neither an enlightening history lesson nor a compelling entertainment. Thomas Gibbons' play tells us nothing we didn't already know about America's unfortunate history of slavery, and its iTheatre Collaborative production, which commenced last weekend, provides little more than a handful of interesting performances.

Flashbacks to slavery's past provide some of the scant texture in this story of an African-American activist determined to document George Washington's shameful position on slavery. In the present, the activist Salif Camara (Mike Traylor, who plays nearly every scene in high dudgeon) stages an ongoing protest against the construction of Philadelphia's Liberty Bell Center commemorative hall on the site of Washington's former home. He's demanding that Washington's slave quarters be rebuilt on the site as well, as a testament to the president's failure to free slaves, specifically his own. His rantings instigate flashbacks to the life of Oney Judge, one of Washington's slaves who lived in the shack behind his mansion, and her determination to flee once it's revealed that she won't be set free when Washington leaves office.

As Oney, Shamiqua Reed gives a touching if occasionally passive performance, bringing us a woman who appears not so much angry about her enslavement as sort of perturbed by it. Yet hers is the truest performance, particularly when viewed alongside those of her castmates. I did like Kevin Watson's varied takes on an overconfident abolitionist and Oney's mentally challenged brother, but the rest of the cast appeared to be impersonating, rather than embodying, their characters.

Director Charles St. Clair strains for intellectual passion, but there's precious little to work with in Gibbons' script, which stretches taut a handful of valuable points about hypocrisy and corrupt politicians and the ambiguousness of American "history." Among St. Clair's more interesting touches are the delayed blackouts that open every scene, so that we're made to listen to the tension in Gibbons' drama before we see the people who are enacting it.

A House with No Walls isn't as thoughtful or as inspiring as its predecessors (Bee-Luther-Hatchee and Permanent Collection) in Gibbons' triumvirate of plays on racial politics, a fact that the timeliness of this new production can't overcome. I wanted to be moved by Oney's plight, but in the end, I was mostly just curious: about why Gibbons had written such a sleepy, slow-moving play about such a fierce subject; about why the cast had been so uneven; about why the material didn't make me care more when reminded that the father of our country was a hypocrite on the issue of slavery. At fault, I decided, is Gibbons' facile distillation of race relations, which leaves us with a twice-told tale presented by prototypes, rather than people.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela