Playwright: Thomas Gibbons . At: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington . Phone: 773-281-8463; $25-$35. Runs through: Dec. Photo by Lara Goetsch
What shocks you first is the size. A square no larger than modest tool shed, marked in the dirt by four pegs and a length of rope: This was where nine—nine!—of George Washington's slaves lived. The Father of Our Country, icon of all that is good and noble and just about the American Way, stored human beings as if they were farm implements. Historic fact: The Washingtons housed nine humans in a dark, dirty enclosure they probably would have considered unfit quarters for their horses.
The patch of Pennsylvania earth that was once Washington's slave quarters is at the core of Thomas Gibbons' didactic drama A House With No Walls. Don't let that latter 'D' word scare you. Yes, this is a play of speeches and pointedly contrasting points of view.
But Gibbons is a storyteller as much as an articulate voice in the country's unending debates about race, culture and history. Massive, fraught topics each, they are broached in Timeline Theatre's excellent production through interesting characters and a compelling drama.
Directed by Louis Contey, the issues in Gibbons' work don't overwhelm the story or sink the dialogue. Instead, a top-drawer ensemble navigates multiple centuries and dueling points of view in disparate worlds that range from the rarefied halls of academia to raucous rallies on National Park sites. Moreover, the play comes filtered through an engrossing, real-life contemporary context. Gibbons based the piece on a series of events that started in 2000, when the National Parks Service began construction on the multi-million dollar Liberty Bell Center. The planned shrine to liberty was mere feet from the spot where Washington had his slave quarters.
As Timeline's meticulous dramaturge Aaron Carter notes in a richly detailed lobby display, a firestorm of controversy ignited over the Liberty Bell Center, a 'conjunction of liberty and slavery on the same site.' Black activists passionately argued that visitors to the 'Heaven of Liberty' museum first cross an exhibit clearing noting the 'hell of slavery.' Opposing factions just as vehemently decried the 'multi-culturalists ' who were 'high-jacking' plans for the Center.
Gibbons even-handedly dramatizes both perspectives. 'America, Land of the Brave, Land of the Slave,' shouts Salif Camara ( A.C. Smith, in a firecracker of a performance ) , an uncompromising voice for 'avenging the ancestors.' His equally well-written counterpart is Black conservative Cadence Lane ( a formidably regal yet wholly human Amber Starr Friendly ) , an author demonized for writing against affirmative action, among other minority-based 'liberal' causes.
Gibbons layers the modern-day action the post-Colonial world of 1796, as Washington slave Oney Judge ( Leslie Ann Sheppard ) is forced to reckon with a hard, horrible truth about her beloved master and make a wrenching sacrifice for her own freedom. Intriguingly, Oney and Cadence are so much alike they could be sisters were they not separated by generations.
Director Contey gracefully negotiates multiple eras and places. Regardless of time and place, however, those roped-off pegs are never out of sight, remnants of a house with no walls, where nine people lived and their owners could come and go as they pleased.