A few years shy of a century ago, Nicholas II, last of the Russian czars, enjoyed the protection of what historian Robert K. Massie called “a gaudily fantastic quartet of bodyguards. Four gigantic Negroes dressed in scarlet trousers, gold-embroidered jackets, curved shoes and white turbans…Although all of these men were referred to at court as Ethiopians, one was an American Negro named Jim Hercules.” That passage, from Massie’s book Nicholas and Alexandra, goes on to report Hercules would return from visits stateside bearing jars of guava jelly for the tsar’s children, and that “he was an employee, bound to the family only by loyalty.”
That’s all Massie knew of Jim Hercules, but that one paragraph got the imagination of playwright Allyson Currin warm enough to cook up Hercules in Russia, a promising if not-yet-all-there bit of speculation on the circumstances by which a former slave from Alabama could rise to a position of privilege in St. Petersburg. Currin, a professor at George Washington University, depicts Hercules as a likable, resourceful man (played by the handsome, likable Ricardo Frederick Evans), the kind of guy the czar will drink with and whom his daughter, the adolescent Duchess Tatiana, plainly adores. And because nothing in the slender historical record forbids it, he has a fellow African-American expat pal in Jonah, a bartender who misses no opportunity to point out that being a curiosity in Russia is better than being a victim of Jim Crow or worse back home. But through a series of encounters with Lev (a soulful Andrew Ferlo), a budding revolutionary who literally carries his soapbox on his back, Jim begins to suspect he’s a cog in a system of oppression as malevolent as the one he left on the other side of the Atlantic.
You could pick nits in this Doorway Arts Ensemble production: Lev is one of three Russian characters (albeit the only poor Russian Jew), so why does only Ferlo attempt a Russian accent? And even if Jim was born the day before the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, he’d be in his 50s by the time of the Russian Revolution, not a fresh-faced young man as he is here.
Of course, the math doesn’t matter if the drama works. The bigger problem is the flashbacks to Alabama, where Jim’s wife lays into him—“The rage of the world is in me, Jim!”—for what seems like utterly rational, if coldly pragmatic, behavior. Currin gives us either too much or not enough of the particulars of the couple’s tragic backstory; my vote would be to cut the flashbacks altogether.
That’d leave plenty of strong material for her to refine in the subsequent stagings I hope Hercules will get: The growing complexity of Jim’s chaste relationship with Titania (high schooler Sarah Ulstrup is age-appropriately cast), especially once she’s read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and claims to understand him (which she does here; I’m not participating in the rewrite). The memorable way in which Jim attempts to befriend Lev, who mourns his own loss. Or just the awful irony of the soon-to-come February Revolution—one we know, but the characters can’t know, will replace a bad regime with a worse one. Even when you’re dealing with a character whose identity, if not his entire existence, is fictional, you can’t escape history.
The play runs to March 4 at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring.