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The Never-ending Past

TimeLine Theatre Company's new show tackles American racism.

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A House With No Walls Timeline Theatre Company

"The past is never dead," goes one of William Faulkner's most famous lines. "It's not even past." In America, nowhere is this clearer than in matters of race. A recent controversy in Philadelphia serves as an illuminating case in point—and as the basis of Thomas Gibbons's 2007 play A House With No Walls, now getting a workmanlike Chicago premiere from Timeline Theatre Company.

The trouble started in 2000, when archeologists excavating the site earmarked for the Liberty Bell's new home, Liberty Bell Center, discovered the footprint of George Washington's long-demolished presidential residence, where he lived in the 1790s, when Philadelphia was the nation's capital. Further research revealed a small smokehouse that had been used as quarters for nine of Washington's slaves.

And with that revelation, the never-dead past came surging to the fore. Activists, including a group called the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, insisted that some acknowledgment of the site's link to slavery be made and that it involve more than a plaque. The National Park Service demurred. Eventually a compromise was reached in the form of a memorial—the "house with no walls" of Gibbons's title, expected to open within the next couple years, marking both Washington's house and the slave quarters.

The irony of a symbol of liberty standing on an artifact of oppression isn't lost on Gibbons. But ultimately his dramatization of the furor has more to do with competing approaches to history. On the one hand we have Salif Camara, an activist of the generation that came of age in the civil rights movement. He speaks movingly of Washington's "nine specimens of human property" and vents his justified wrath over American racism. But his methods—setting up camp on the construction site, giving histrionic press conferences, citing racism as the primary cause of every ill—keep him stuck in a state of outraged victimhood.

Though Gibbons wrote his play before Barack Obama's candidacy brought Reverend Jeremiah Wright into the national spotlight, Salif resembles the president-elect's incendiary former minister. "The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons," Obama said, in his March 18 speech on race, delivered in Philadelphia, "is that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress has been made." Through Salif, Gibbons forces us to ask at what point acknowledging a legitimate past grievance creates permanent victims, blind to both the fact and possibility of progress.

At the opposite extreme is Cadence Lane, a best-selling polemicist who occupies the very lonely role of a black conservative. She serves on the museum's academic advisory panel and, even though she's written a book about Oney Judge, a slave who escaped from Washington's estate, she opposes giving in to Salif's demands. As she sees it, the man's protest—indeed, his career—is nothing but a sideshow built on "pseudo-history, entitlement, and paranoia," abetted by liberal white guilt. It's not that she denies the horrors of slavery; she rejects using them to explain or excuse contemporary problems. Instead, she tends to attribute them to a lack of personal responsibility, a culture that doesn't prize education or hard work, and leaders like Salif who encourage their followers to remain chained to past injustices.

Gibbons goes out of his way to enlist our sympathies for Cadence: her colleagues shun her, and students hurl Oreos at her during lectures. But that doesn't make her right. Just because Cadence chooses to downplay racial prejudice doesn't mean it's ceased to exist. Gibbons could make this clearer in the play. Again, Obama's Philadelphia speech is instructive: "The path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination—and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past—are real and must be addressed."

The argument between Cadence and Salif, depicted mostly in a series of standoffs at the construction site, constitutes the central conflict of the story. There are other characters—a glib government bureaucrat, a namby-pamby historian who serves as a love interest for Cadence—but they remain secondary. Also threaded throughout the contemporary events are scenes sketching Oney Judge's story. In Gibbons's hands she remains a shadowy figure, but her presence onstage serves as a visual reminder of the way history haunts the present.

A House With No Walls is engrossing because of its willingness to tackle head-on one of the biggest elephants in the room of American culture. But Cadence and Salif come across as less interesting than the topic, because their engagement with the history of slavery and racism remains rhetorical. (For a subtler, less bloodless view of a psyche invaded by a site from the racist past, you could try Brett Neveu's play Heritage, in which two black men are demolished by working on the restoration of an old plantation house.)

Louis Contey's staging for TimeLine Theatre Company is sensible in almost every regard. The unfinished look of Collette Pollard's functional, concrete-gray set suggests both a construction site and ruins, and Contey orchestrates collisions between the 21st- and 18th-century stories effectively and without visual clutter. When Salif raises a banner reading avenging our enslaved ancestors on the plot where the slave house stood, he raises it over one of the enslaved—Oney, in 1796, quietly knitting away. A projection on the set's back wall showing gentle waves serves as both a symbol of oppression, when Salif alludes to the Middle Passage, and of freedom, when Oney's brother talks about his dream of becoming a sailor.

The cast generally do what is required of them with minimum ostentation. Amber Starr Friendly plays Cadence with a steely smile and unflappable resolve that at times seem modeled on Condoleezza Rice. Her character's inner life remains inaccessible, but that seems to be the playwright's negligence, not the actor's.

The sole exception to the production's restraint is A.C. Smith as Salif, and the play benefits a good deal from his letting it rip. Physically imposing, with an expression both sour and sad, Smith tempers demagoguery with feeling and imbues grievance with grandeur. When he lets his sense of outrage boil over into an almost Lear-like desperation—telling Cadence, through clenched teeth, "When I look at you, I see everything I worked for my whole life being for nothing"—the play comes as close as it gets to rising above argument to achieve emotional impact.v

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