Biting the hand

New Theatre's Stonewall Jackson's House is an exhausting, rewarding comic debate

The list of tyrants and geniuses, critics and playwrights, politicians and serial killers who receive praise and condemnation in Jonathan Reynolds' scorching comedy about the scrambled cultural circuits connecting American blacks and whites is too long to mention in this column. Suffice to say Stonewall Jackson's House, given its second professional American production by New Theatre Company, introduces subjects about race and national identity in a heated series of debates set in a nonprofit New York theater.

It is curious that this Pulitzer-nominated script has been so rarely produced. You would think New York City, with its acres of self-righteous experimental productions, would approve of this kind of shocking stuff, which opens with a young African-American woman in an Aunt Jemima outfit begging to be the slave of a simpering upper-middle-class Anglo couple from Connecticut. While it's offensive -- at least on the surface -- that scene later serves an important purpose. But the condescending liberalism and hypocrisy of nonprofit New York theater is the second-biggest target here, which is likely the real reason the play's first and only production at New York's American Place Theatre ended quickly and without much comment.

Truthfully, Stonewall Jackson's House is not a great play. The second act isn't so much a dramatic structure as an extended, wearying argument among five characters, each of whom voices ever more controversial opinions about race and racism as if they were programmed jukeboxes for "political incorrectness," that most tiresome of pop-culture crusades. You occasionally wait for the high school debate captain to ring the bell and tell these intellectual combatants that their time is up. But it's also true that Reynolds has stocked this play with much to make audiences deeply uncomfortable and, for many, to confront their assumptions about race in America -- a rarity in the self-congratulatory experience that is contemporary theater. There's a lot of bravery in Stonewall Jackson's House that shouldn't be underestimated, and Reynolds ought to be happy that New Theatre Company has assembled a cast that knows what comic timing means. Your laughter -- and the preview audience laughed loudly through both acts -- may be both nervous and honest: You may well learn something about yourself.

From left: Abby Cucci, Jim Jorgensen, T.A. Taylor, Charlotte Akin, and (bottom) Nomsa L. Mlambo are a great ensemble in an exhausting evening about racial expectations.
From left: Abby Cucci, Jim Jorgensen, T.A. Taylor, Charlotte Akin, and (bottom) Nomsa L. Mlambo are a great ensemble in an exhausting evening about racial expectations.

Anyone who would accuse Stonewall Jackson's House of being racist is clearly not listening to the bell-clear voice of its central character, Tracy (Nomsa L. Mlambo). She's a young African-American playwright who is about to be named artistic director of a major New York theater company. There's just one problem. She has written a play called Stonewall Jackson's House that features a young black woman so sick of careening between the expectations of racist America and those of "professional blacks" that she asks to become enslaved by a banal white couple (T.A. Taylor and Charlotte Akin). Taylor and Akin also play the artistic directors of the theater company who have condescendingly groomed Tracy for the directorship, until they learn that her hot-headed opinions against the welfare state, affirmative action, Anglo guilt, and African-American victimhood have culminated in a script that will lose them bags of grant money. "Must I always be a child of racism?" Tracy sobs, clutching the beloved, blasphemous script to her chest. We discover the answer is yes, as long it means creating theater that makes foundations, producers, directors, and audiences feel as though one passive evening with the stage will strike a blow for civil rights.

The entire New Theatre cast of Stonewall Jackson's House was sublime on the night before opening night. Again, they make the best of a script that sometimes degenerates into a polemical pissing match. You could feel them gaining strength from it at times, when the bitching reached a profound crescendo once or twice. Director Sheriden Thomas is quoted in the program as saying "I love a good argument!" and she's done a smashing job of orchestrating all these bitter recriminations into a brawling good night of theater you're not likely to see again anytime soon. Just so long as you realize that's what you're in for -- racial spleen squirted artfully and relentlessly in many different directions -- you should find this night with New Theatre Company unforgettable.

 
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