What is it like to be partly free? Emerging playwright Gabrielle Fulton’s fascinating new play, Uprising, at Alexandria’s MetroStage, provides a unique twist on the African-American experience. Set in antebellum (pre Civil War) America, it is the story of emancipated slaves living together in a rural Shenandoah community, tasting a slice of freedom. Their stable world is turned upside down by a newcomer, a free abolitionist black man who comes in as a wounded refugee from the failed Harper’s Ferry raid on the federal armory. Inherent in the mining of historical perspective in a quite believable setting is the burst of honesty and passion ingrained in the text, a commendable early work by Fulton, who conceived this work through family stories and independent research. This is in fact a rolling premiere, continuing the opening at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre this summer. Several of the leads are reprising their roles, showing their easy comfort with the material.
Back to our little unnamed community. We meet Sal (Cynthia D. Barker), a young woman who exhibits strength, energy and purpose. The best cotton picker on the farm (they are still doing the only thing they know) she is saving her money and planning for a school for her adopted son Freddie (an extremely poised Jeremiah Hasty). Barker fills her character with a natural spirituality, in touch with the voices on the wind and even the chatter of the birds. Finding Ossie (Anthony Manough) in the field is one big load of trouble that she tries to avoid, even as we watch her fascinated by his easy words and “educated talk.” Ossie and Sal begin a back and forth that lasts throughout the show – a theatrical dance of words and ideas – different in goals yet hopeful for a better future. Barker’s ease of movement and get out of here I like you attitude, combined with Manough’s lilting prose and outrageous ideas make for great moments. “The north wind threw kisses, not misses…” he intones.
…burst of honesty and passion ingrained in the text…
Harboring a fugitive, however, upsets the close community. There is Lottie (Roz White) playing the sharp-tongued older women with the sharp snappy attitude she does so well; Charlie Pick (Doug Brown) the older man with a lively cackle who we will see has a connection with the Underground Railroad; and Bo-Jack, (Enoch King) an aspiring young freeman with an easy smile and a secret heart for Sal. King’s versatile performance in song and movement as an energetic entrepreneur turned defender of the group was a highlight. When Ossie reveals a plan to rise up and revolt, which meets with distain and distrust.
“If you have freedom, all it means is trouble. It will mean nothing until everyone is free.” His words come true as Freddie is taken away in punishment for harboring Ossie. It sets off events that change the community, as Sal leaves and sets out a life course to get him back.
Barker’s Sal is the driving force onstage, a fascinating character that combines hope and fear with basic mothering instincts. She is both guarded and has a heart as big as the sky. However, there is a big switch in sensibilities from Act I to Act II as Ossie and Sal go to Philadelphia to try to get Freddie back legally. Sal is uncertain, as she says, “the law only means something to white people.” Enter the irrepressible Peter Boyle, he of many hats, the Yankee lawyer tasked with getting Freddie back, and meeting failure, one of many cameos he seamlessly delivers.
The action does visibly drop from first to second act, as the guilt over Freddie’s loss is not sustainable. And some of Sal and Ossie’s dialogue cover repeated emotional areas so we are desensitized a bit. But we are treated to several special moments between them, including Ossie teaching Sal to read–nice moment, reminiscent of Helen Keller’s first learning moments onstage. What will Sal choose, in the face of her changing surroundings?
Director Thomas W. Jones II who also directed the Horizons production, has infused the show with modern elements including some later day blues sounds and impressionistic dancing that blend with some 2-step and hoe-down movements. Making it a multimedia event is the liberal use of full video scenic backdrop–cotton fields, a star lit sky and other stark photos of slaves waiting to be sold. A nod to Robbie Hayes for Production and Scenic Design.
As part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, Uprising features a young promising playwright and a heroine that embodies sacrifice, heartache and ultimately, determination. The show finishes off with a spiritual song, a solemn sound denoting continued struggle, but solidarity.
“I can’t be tricked into feeling safe no more. The danger is worth it,” Sal says. And worth seeing.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: Some adult themes.
Uprising plays at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St, Alexandria, VA from Sept. 17-Oct. 25, 2015. For tickets to this or other performances in the 2015 season, call the box office at 703 548-9044 or online.