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When abolitionist John Brown raided the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, not-yet-West Virginia in October of 1859, his force numbered fewer than two dozen men. His plan anticipated that once they had rounded up Harpers Ferry’s slaveowners, the town’s newly liberated slaves would join Brown’s guerilla platoon. They didn’t. The local militia had already managed to kill eight of Brown’s raiders by the time General Robert E. Lee arrived with a detachment of professional soldiers to quash the rebellion. Brown was captured alive; he was convicted and hanged before the year was out.
But a handful of his men escaped. Uprising, Atlanta-based dramatist Gabrielle Fulton’s “rolling world premiere” play with music, imagines the consequences when the sole black survivor of Brown’s doomed mission hides out in a Pennsylvania community of black men and women who earn a per-pound rate for the cotton they pick. Whether in an attempt to demonstrate that an evil as profound as slavery will not accommodate fence-sitters or out of simple necessity to keep the cast size down, the play suffers from some shaky (though fixable) plotting, requiring one character to execute an unconvincing ethical quick-change. But it’s still richly imagined, resonant, and lustily performed, examining the limits of sacrifice and heroism with a sobriety that goes far beyond knee-jerk reverence for the Founding Fathers.
That fugitive abolitionist was a real person, one Osborne Perry Anderson. Born a free man in Pennsylvania, Anderson studied philosophy at Oberlin College—the first in the U.S. to admit black students—and operated a print shop in what is now Ontario, Canada before joining the abolitionist cause. As envisaged by Fulton and embodied by Anthony Manough (who originated the role at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre last summer), Ossie is dashing, eloquent, and righteous, but possessed of a fatal hubris, all of which Manough plays beautifully. Sneaking through a cotton field, he’s smitten when he lays eyes on Sal (the equally convincing Cynthia D. Barker), who picks more cotton most days than the men, despite her habit of conversing with birds and the wind. She clearly likes him, too, with his boundless confidence and knack for oratory. “Picking cotton is not your magnum opus!” he says, imploring her to allow him to teach her to read.
With the same optimism that proved Brown’s undoing, Ossie reveals himself to Sal’s neighbors—Doug Brown, Enoch King, and Roz White, all teriffic—who are divided on whether to keep quiet or to turn him in for a $500 reward. Whistle (a sturdy Peter Boyer), their white boss, initially treats his apparently all-black workforce with dignity and even warmth, but he grows suspicious and cruel as evidence piles up that an abolitionist fugitive is hiding on his plantation. If the forces pressuring Whistle to adopt the extreme measures that he eventually takes were more clearly depicted, that might solve the characterization problem.
In his zeal to inspire Freddie (Jeremiah Hasty), a little boy to whom Sal has become a surrogate mom, Ossie makes a huge mistake that places the boy at risk. There’s the rub: Ossie and Sol clearly pine for one another, but for Sol, everything is secondary to her drive to protect the kid. Here Ossie, the armed insurgent, urges Sol to pursue Freddie’s case in the courts, while the formerly moderate Sol is now ready to employ Any Means Necessary.
The music is a rangy mix of Negro spirituals (“Steal Away,” “Jordan River”) and songs both newly written and adapted from antiquity by Fulton, composer Theodis Ealey, and arranger S. Renee Clark, in various permutations. Accompanied only by David Cole’s acoustic guitar, the singing contributes energy and tone; Uprising isn’t the sort of musical where the numbers advance the plot or offer psychological insight. Fulton gives her characters monologues for that. Cole’s playing is ragged and expressive; the only complaint is that his guitar is amplified while his voice isn’t, making him hard to hear when he’s singing alone. Robbie Hayes designed the set and scenic projections, which vary from open-sky landscapes to heart-rending photographs of enslaved black children and expository headlines about Brown’s execution. They’re equal to their task without being so flashy they compete with the story. Likewise the music. The climactic rave-up of the traditional “I Wanna Be Ready” is a celebratory exclamation mark at the end of a crushingly sad sentence, which is to say, it’s just about perfect.
1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. $55–$60. (703) 548-9044. metrostage.org.