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THEATER REVIEW Rastus and Hattie
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2020-09-29

This article shared 1672 times since Tue Sep 29, 2020
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Playwright: Lisa Langford

At: 16th Street Theater online, at 16thStreetTheater.org . Tickets: Free, with donation . Runs through: Oct. 24

Content warning: Rastus and Hattie includes racist caricatures, racism and violence.

Since their inception in 1920, robots in fiction have typically looked like humans and talked like machines.

Nowadays, in our age of Westworld-style technology, "bots" can be heard discoursing in the soothing tones of nannies and yoga instructors, but trade practice among real-life manufacturers of mobile mannequins advises strenuously against precision accuracy in replicating androids and gynoids ( even sex dolls are carefully crafted to evidence overt reminders of their artificial infrastructures ).

The robots in Lisa Langford's fable can trace their ancestry to an automaton invented by the Westinghouse Electrical Corporation and exhibited at the 1939 World's Fair, before its line of succession was abruptly curtailed by the onset of WWII. Its sole descendants are Rastus and Hattie, a pair of household appliances made in the image of antebellum house servants, but recently restored by Marlene's husband David to assist the busy parents in their childrearing chores. The presence of this antiquated iconography in the white couple's home proves disconcerting to the Marlene's girlhood chum, African-American scientist Needra, whose research into genetic manipulation—specifically, the therapeutic viability of "erasing" DNA-linked memories of crippling trauma—has earned her a teaching fellowship at an Alabama university.

Even playgoers ignorant of eugenics, lobotomies, the myth of "pre-natal influence" and the wisdom of heeding past errors to avoid repetition of same, can identify the potential menace inherent in this proposal.

Not until after a wrong turn on the route to Dixieland propels Needra, her husband Malik and their infant son through a hole in the space-time continuum into the Deep South circa 1870, however, does she come to understand the unforeseen consequences of her benevolently-conceived but ultimately inhumane manifesto. Marlene and David undergo enlightenment as well: after discovering that Needra has stolen/kidnapped/emancipated their—uh, property, they proceed to pursue their neighbors across the Mason-Dixon line, where they are likewise hurtled into a social system flagrantly designed to facilitate the worst aspects of their cruel WASP heritage.

Langford's parable—densely packed with insights elevating it far above simplistic finger-pointing—includes descriptions of racist caricatures, practices and violence, but the restrictions on group performance imposed by current health-related conditions spare audiences live-action depiction of the atrocities documented in this 16th Street Theater production.

Director Lanise Antoine Shelley has rescripted Langford's intelligent and articulate text to radio-drama configuration featuring the voices of seven actors, meticulously arranged by sound designer Olanrewaju Adewole and audio engineer Nathan Cox-Reed. Visual narrative is conveyed in graphic-novel fashion as a series of silhouette-collages, created by Roy Thomas and animated right before our eyes by video editor Peter Marston Sullivan.


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