When was the last time you saw Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a theater? The answer is probably never. As far as I can tell, a theatrical version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s controversial novel hasn’t been performed in the Philadelphia area for many decades, and that also appears to be true for the rest of the country, with the exception of a couple of attempts in New York City over the years. But one Philadelphia theater company says that it’s time to bring the story back to the stage, but with a twist.
EgoPo Classic Theater, a company that describes itself as “edgy, innovative, and inspiring,” is set to debut Uncle Tom in May at Delancey Place’s Plays & Players Theater. Auditions begin this weekend. The show will mark the end of EgoPo’s vaudeville-themed season, which started with their excellent all-female Assassination of Jesse James and continues in March with The Life (and Death) of Harry Houdini.
Uncle Tom was quickly transformed into a theatrical work after the novel’s 1852 publication. And although the book was immensely popular (its sales in the 1800s were only surpassed by those of the Bible), the various theatrical versions were even more so.
Because copyright laws were not what they are today, the scripts strayed freely from the original text, and the show eventually became a centerpiece of minstrel performances, complete with blackface and the most exaggerated racial stereotypes possible. Plus, the book itself wound up on some “banned book” lists, and the NAACP objected to its language and characterizations. No wonder the progressive theater world sought to distance itself in later years.
For the May production, EgoPo artistic director Lane Savadove and Glenn Odom, a literary studies professor at Rowan University, are creating a new script. “We’re doing a realistic, naturalistic version that will be incredibly respectful of the novel,” promises Savadove. “We’re not writing anything. We’re using the book word-for-word, cutting it just so that it works in a theatrical format. I really want the novel to speak for itself on the stage. This is not going to be some post-modern version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
I asked him why it was important to do Uncle Tom now, why he wants to pick it up after all these years.
“The play got tagged as racist not because of the book but because of the minstrel shows,” he explains. “The book was written as an anti-racist piece, and in the last 10 years, the top African American scholars like Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West have gone back to reclaim it as an important part of racial history. And so, we wanted to go back now that it’s seen in this new light and create a new theater version.”
One person who is not convinced that this is necessarily a good idea is Philadelphia actor James Ijames, who teaches the most prominent version of the Uncle Tom scripts in his “Race on the Stage” course at Temple University.
“The citing of Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West to somehow say, ‘See, the black guy said it’s OK!’ is problematic,” says Ijames. “Citing the elder statesmen is akin to the ‘some of my best friends are black’ argument. That notion and rebuttal and defense doesn’t have anything to do with anything.”
Further complicating the matter is Savadove’s decision to swap races in the casting process. In other words, white actors will play slaves while black actors will play their owners.
I talked to one white actor who plans to audition for the show, even though his concerns are “numerous.” The actor, who asked to remain anonymous, points out that many of the stereotypes commonly associated with black culture can be traced back to Uncle Tom, from the “Aunt Jemima” figure to the hyper-educated, very proper black man.
“Those stereotypes were built off of white characterizations of blacks,” he says. “I don’t know how having white actors playing black characters introduces anything new to this story. I sincerely hope that there is an artistic objective beyond being edgy for the sake of being edgy.”
But his biggest and “admittedly selfish” concern is the dialect and language that he’ll be expected to use.
“I have a hard time listening to myself delivering the language,” he notes. “It sounds like a blatantly racist caricature.” He says that he can’t even read his lines in public.
Savadove tries to explain his unusual casting decision: “Even though, by all accounts, the dialogue is incredibly historically accurate, it’s a loaded subject to have a black man speak in a Southern slave dialect. And so we’re switching the races. And we’re painting a picture of an America where it happens to be that the whites became enslaved and the blacks became the slave owners. We’re pointing out the randomness with which the blacks became enslaved and the whites became empowered.”
When I asked Savadove if staging the play was the subject of much debate within EgoPo, he told me it wasn’t. “We are clear in what we are doing,” he says. “And we articulated it clearly to our board.”
In light of Savadove’s justification for the racial switch and his comments regarding “randomness,” Ijames wondered about the racial makeup of that board, as did Ardmore-based playwright Quinn Eli, whose newest play will debut at Plays & Players in April alongside works by Suzan-Lori Parks and other African American playwrights.
And so I asked Savadove point blank if there were any black people on his board. He refused to answer directly. Then he pointed to EgoPo’s 2012 production of A Dybbuk, perhaps the most important play in Jewish history and one with its own controversies surrounding mysticism and Kabbalah. “You didn’t call me then and ask me if any of my board members were Jewish,” he said. No, I didn’t. But, then, A Dybbuk is no Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In any event, both Eli and Ijames say that they intend to go see EgoPo’s Uncle Tom. And so do I.
“I’ll find it difficult to absorb the image of whites in place of blacks as slaves,” says Eli. “And I question how effective it will be for white members of the audience who won’t have to take the horror of what happened to those who it actually happened to. It presupposes that a lot of our notions about race have changed more dramatically than I think they have. But that doesn’t mean it won’t make for interesting theater.”
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