There are a number of uses for the word 'epic'
and this production of Suzan-Lori Parks' highly stylised play clearly sets out
to be defined by them all. It deals with epic themes of slavery, identity,
inherent racism and the unending desire for freedom marred by the fear of how
that freedom redefines us. It's held
together in the playing style of the epic Greek classics – using nameless
chorus, a messenger, poetry and much of the commentary and conversation
delivered as asides to the audience. Yet when it comes to 'epic' as being a
definition of a great piece of theatre,
The effort required to stick with this isn't sufficiently rewarded other than to be a dinner party conversation starter for the middle classes
The story is told over three small episodes in time – the first structured like a game of ping-pong as we see the main protagonist, favoured slave Hero, keep changing his mind about whether to accompany his 'Boss-Master' to fight on the wrong side of the American Civil War (against the slave-abolishing Yankees). The deciding factors of freedom, love, pride and loyalty are all skimmed over and held together by the bets of the worldly possessions (a spoon, a button, a shoe) being placed on the outcome of his decision by his fellow slaves. Each change of mind races by, feeling more mundane than complex and with a heightened realism that adds an interesting style but has little substance to make you really care whatever he decides. And then it just ends as decision is made.
Linked together by nicely evocative original music sung by the ever-on-stage Steven Bargonetti (though the music adds to the rather soporific energy rather than develop the story), the second play now sees him at war (no real spoilers here when you consider the play's title) with his inherently racist Master (the Colonel) and his captured Yankee prisoner. The debate about what it means to be free – and the fear of having no value by having no master – continues as nothing else really happens for another hour. As the Colonel, John Stahl teeters between frightening in his unerring beliefs (that no matter how bad things get "at least... God made me white") and a blustering manner and sibilant camp delivery that ultimately makes him too cartoon for us to believe these arguments belong to characters as opposed to just being told.
After an interval (which served as an ending for quite a few non-returners who had clearly lost the battle to stay awake by this point), the final play is back at the Master's house where the fellow slaves await news of Hero's return from the war. The hyper realism extends to somewhat farcical comedy here with lusty innuendo between Hero's friend Homer and his nearly-wife Penny (and many an erection joke!) and the arrival of Hero's previously missing dog Odyssey (a very funny if out of place performance by Dex Lee) recounting his own Master's war experience (a nod to the desire of ownership outweighing the need for freedom). The undercurrent narrative of the chorus of slaves looking to escape gets a little lost – not only as it's the same desire / fear of freedom being endlessly demonstrated again in case we hadn't got it already.
Its worthiness is clear in bucketloads and the term epic abounds – especially as this is only the first third of what will be the total story being written. There's no question that the fear of the unknown impact of our desire for freedom is a conundrum we don't often consider. But the lack of pace, repetition, light characterisation and inconsistent and, at best, adequate performances, makes it all feel a bit dull and too much hard work. As is often the case with such pieces, this may be a critical success and my lack of enthusiasm a comment on my lack of intelligence – but the effort required to stick with this for an average theatregoer isn't sufficiently rewarded other than to be a dinner party conversation starter for the middle classes.