Slave Narratives Revisited a celebration of freedom Studio Theatre

Remaining Performances: Saturday, July 19 @ 7 PM Sunday, July 20 @ Noon Sunday, July 27 @ 4 PM

They say: “Multiple award winning author Ed Shockley follows the success of 2007’s world premiere of The Oracle with the D.C. premiere of a new touring show. Modechai Vanunu, Nat Turner, Nelson Mandela, Sitting Bull plus other historic and fictional characters manage to find humor and maintain dignity in the face of oppression.”

Brian’s take: Yesterday was Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. To celebrate, Ed Shockley and lary moten (yes, he keeps his name provocatively lower-cased) of the Mosaic Theatre opened the DC run of their impeccably executed Slave Narratives Revisited: a celebration of freedom.

It is the mesmerizing performances by Shockley and moten that truly make this piece soar. I would use the word “unparalleled” if the two did not parallel each other so wonderfully and in such complementary ways. Talk about sweatin’ the small stuff: from a simple slackening of the face to an elaborate syncopating of a sermon, these guys employ a formidable arsenal of physical and vocal nuances to inhabit their various characters, and neither of them misses a beat. To read Slave Narratives Revisited would be one thing—an emotional but ultimately academic experience—but to see it breathing, to feel your pulse syncrhonize with the rhythms of speech, to look these characters in the eyes, to hear the silence, this is why we get out of our rocking chairs and into the theater.

As for the script, the subtitle, a celebration of freedom, is important, as is the word “revisited.” This is not an examination of slavery solely in the cotton-picking, pre-Civil War sense, but rather diverse variations on a theme, and that theme is freedom, not slavery. Elements of African-American history play a significant role, of course, but in his script Shockley has assembled a diverse array of sources and stories, from an Indonesian tsunami survivor to a government official preparing to meet Sitting Bull to none other than Nelson Mandela. When it comes to characters you may feel you’ve encountered many times before—a runaway slave, for example, or a slave preacher—Shockley identifies novel and sometimes humorous portals through which to enter the history, so the material feels fresh and you’re bound to learn something new.

“God made this life hard.” We learn in the play that this sentence, the only spoken to a businessman by a young, breathtaking female slave on a train, are the five words that impelled him to become an abolitionist. Shockley and moten are drawn to characters who have had to bear excessive hardship, and as you watch them perform, you realize that the actors are not only paying these people homage by portraying them on the stage, but also by investing so much of their own hard work in the theatrical craft. The sweat spent in rehearsal and performance may be an inadequate obeisance to the sweat spent in servitude, but still, with performers as talented as Shockley and moten, I wouldn’t want them perspiring anywhere other than the theater.

See it if: You like stuff that’s good.

Skip it if: You dislike stuff that’s good.