Sunday, February 08, 2004


‘UNCLE TOM’S CABIN’ in provocative production at CPT

Many plays and books have evoked controversy and incited change. Probably no volume outside of ‘The Bible” has been more credited or damned for its influence than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Abraham Lincoln indicated that the book and its author were among the most influential causes for the Civil War.

2004 marks the 152nd Anniversary of the writing of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The volume still remains a controversial work of art. The play productions of the novel also incite strong reactions. In the 1852 “Boston Herald” review of the first production of “UNCLE TOM'S CABIN,” a critic claimed: "This play [is] nightly received at one of our most popular theatres with repeated rounds of applause. It is a sad blunder [that] our stage shall become the deliberate agent in the cause of abolitionism."

Harriet Beecher Stowe was raised as a Puritan. While a child living in Cincinnati, which was just across the river from the slave trade, Stowe observed firsthand incidents which inspired her to write the now-famous anti-slavery novel. Although many Northerners considered slavery a political institution for which they had no personal responsibility, the book become a sensation and raised the conscience of numerous Northerners while repulsing many Southerners

Cleveland Public Theatre, as part of its Black history month program, has decided to produce a “different” version of the play. The vehicle, “UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (OR THE PRESERVATION OF FAVOURED RACES IN THE STRUGGLE FOR LIFE),” created by Floraine Kay and Randolph Curtis Rand, breaks from the traditional storyline. It pushes every boundary and stereotype, probing the sensationalism and notoriety of the original script.

The production also breaks from traditional staging using nine actors to play nearly 40 roles. The staging pays no attention to sex or color, having the actors switch both their gender and their race as they act the roles in stylized performances.

The staging, itself, may confuse and confound some viewers, while exciting and pleasing others. Many will find the “plot” hard to follow. There is just so much happening on the stage that the viewer can easily get overwhelmed. Director Randolph Curtis Rand needed to ask whether his staging devices would help or hinder the audience’s receipt of the message. The constant shuffling of chairs, posing and extended acting devices often got in the way of clarity. Maybe a less chaotic approach would have been appropriate.

The performances in the CPT production range from excellent to shallow. Nina Domingue and George Roth make every one of their characters vivid and clear. These are very fine performances. On the other hand, Cornelius speaks words rather than meanings and is unconvincing in many of his portrayals. Betsy Hogg is often difficult to hear and understand.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: . CPT’s ‘UNCLE TOM’S CABIN: THE PRESERVATION OF FAVORED RACES IN THE STRUGGLE FOR LIFE’ will create a great deal of conversation regarding both the script and production values. It’s an important function of the arts to present various views. CPT gets high marks for challenging its audiences (and this critic) to think and react.