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As someone who’s spent long hours contemplating real-world parallels for movie plots—I Am Legend, say, as a metaphor for the war on terror—I’m surprised at my own surprise at the central conceit in Robert O’Hara’s Hollywood/Holocaust mashup, Antebellum. For the first hour or so, I must’ve looked as startled as the evening’s Southern belle does when she first hears a knock at her door.
O’Hara begins his serio-comic drama on December 15, 1939, a few hours before the star-studded Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind, an event for which Sarah Roca (Jenna Sokolowski) has been prepping by re-reading Margaret Mitchell’s novel in her columned, Tara-like manse. Opening the door when she hears that knock, she’s startled to have an unfamiliar black woman collapse into her arms, but she still has the presence of mind to bypass a nearby plush chaise and deposit her visitor in a plainer, stiff-backed chair. Once revived, Edna Black Rock (Jessica Frances Dukes) proves a chatty, engaging companion, politely intrigued by Sarah’s plans to dress for the movie premiere as Southern belles did in the antebellum South, and discreet when Sarah realizes she may have offended when she referred to the age of slavery as “the good old days.”
“I know what you meant,” Edna smiles reassuringly, “better than you know.” Sarah smiles back, the women bond over chatter about the house and their backgrounds, and by the time Sarah’s husband Ariel (Nick Vienna) gets home, Edna has more or less sweet-talked her way into employment as the couple’s maid.
So far, so simple.
Except that during a break in their conversation, two male, German-speaking figures have begun occupying the same stage space, though not the same room. They’re in a detention center in Germany—Oskar (Andrew Price) is the camp commandant, Gabriel (Carlton Byrd) a black, gay cabaret performer who is both Oskar’s prisoner and his English tutor—and as with Sarah and Edna, their conversation concerns the relationship of servitude between them. Oskar, whose interest in Gabriel appears to know few bounds, tells Gabriel he wants to “trap you in my thoughts.”
“Keep me in your thoughts,” corrects Gabriel, knowing full well that Oskar has expressed himself just as he intended.
I shouldn’t say too much more about plot, since the evening has a goodly number of shocks in store, but as the action shifts back and forth between Atlanta and Germany, thematic strands start crossing to intriguing effect. Talk in Atlanta of Gone With the Wind’s largely British cast struggling with Southern accents blends easily with Gabriel’s English pronunciation lessons in Germany, while across-the-pond reverberations are set off when Sarah mentions that she and Ariel are Jewish. That Gabriel fled American racism only to encounter its German counterpart leads to talk of Jews and “coloreds” being enslaved millennia apart but discriminated against simultaneously. Anti-gay sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic figures into the conversation as well, and by early in the second act, author O’Hara and director Chay Yew are orchestrating a single stage image that combines this refreshingly complicated play’s many themes—a male couple dancing, a Nazi officer saluting, a hoop-skirted neo-antebellum belle twirling ecstatically, and a furious black woman shredding a Confederate flag as the sounds of the Gone With the Wind theme blend with screamed “Seig Heil”s.
As I said, the combinations here are startling. I’d never connected Hitler’s rise in Germany with Gone With The Wind’s premiere, and had I done so, I doubt I would have noted, as O’Hara has, that Jewish producer David O. Selznick was making a film that portrays slavery as benign at the precise moment when Jews were being herded into work camps. The playwright has a character make that point specifically, and it’s undeniably provocative. I’m not sure, though, that it’s a dramatic point so much as an intellecutal one—a point that might be just as well expressed in an essay as in a play. And in that respect, it’s a lot like many of O’Hara’s points in Antebellum, a work that is pretty damn fascinating as social history, political theory, racial commentary, and even as film criticism, but not always as engaging as it might be when taken purely as drama.
Partly, that’s a result of the evening’s oddly twined structure, whereby developments, events, names from one side of the Atlantic keep getting paired in a kind of lockstep with equivalents on the other. And partly it’s a result of the playwright’s inability to resist articulating connections—alcohol as a lubricant both for Klan lynchings and for Nazi rabble-rousing in beer halls—everywhere he sees them. His characters so frequently express themselves in commentaries on one subject or another that they can’t help seeming mouthpieces for authorial ideas after a while, despite the best efforts of performers to embody them as individuals.
At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where Antebellum is receiving its world premiere, those best efforts are, let’s note, pretty impressive. Sokolowski’s increasingly frazzled Sarah is a wide-eyed wonder as she flits from one untenable position to another in a gold and red hoop skirt (costumer Valerie St. Pierre Smith has a ball shredding the gown as the evening progresses). As her husband, Vienna has the air of a man with a secret, and when it surfaces, you realize how adept the character had become at concealing it. Dukes spits out Edna’s early quips with a tartness that makes her later vulnerability all the more wrenching. Price manages the surprising trick of making a sinister Nazi commandant into an emotionally accessible monster. And if Byrd’s cabaret vocalizing doesn’t merit the raves the author has put in the mouths of his listeners, he’s a pretty riveting presence otherwise, sometimes fearful, sometimes defiant, but always gliding with a kind of pained serenity around the commandant’s quarters.
Designer Tony Cisek has crafted a grandly moldy Georgian mansion in shades of gray, with walls that fly out when the director requires, revealing a persuasively worrisome forest just outside. It isn’t always evident just why Yew is sending set-pieces flying. At one point, I rather missed the confining walls, until to hugely dramatic effect, he flew them back in, and I understood in retrospect why they’d had to go. In that respect, his production captures precisely the spirit of O’Hara’s ambitious, perhaps over-schematic, but undeniably vibrant play: It makes great sense after the fact, if not always in the moment.