A White Uncle Tom?

Interesting casting choices in new Philadelphia play.

The various theatrical versions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin were once among the most-performed works in American theater. But in more enlightened times, these plays are virtually never mounted because the stage adaptations have been unapologetically racist.

But this month, Philadelphia’s EgoPo Classic Theater will present a new version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at Rittenhouse’s Plays & Players Theatre, with Philadelphia actors Steven Wright (pictured, left) and Ed Swidey (right) leading the cast of 15. Previews of the play begin tonight, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin officially opens on Friday, May 30th

While previous scripts strayed far from Stowe’s original text, which is widely regarded these days as anti-slavery commentary, EgoPo’s script will stick to it closely. “I want the novel to speak for itself,” explains director Lane Savadove. “This is not going to be some postmodern version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Or is it?

EgoPo raised not just eyebrows but tempers earlier this year when its Uncle Tom auditions were announced. The company would cast white actors as slaves and black actors in the traditionally white roles of masters and traders.

That story went national–thanks to a link on the right-wing Drudge Report–and the fallout was swift: Savadove was labeled a racist; there was major tumult within the company itself; and many in the Philadelphia theater community wondered if the casting call was nothing more than an attempt at being provocative. After all, this is a theater company that prides itself on staying “edgy and innovative.”

Savadove insists that his decision wasn’t racist, insensitive or gratuitiously edgy–and that it was artistically necessary. “We’ve seen a lot of depictions of the institution of slavery in film, and so it is very easy for us to feel distant or historical about it,” he says. “But we want our Uncle Tom to feel immediate and human, like we’re dusting off history and making it feel alive and close to us.”

Whether that works–and, just as importantly, whether EgoPo can craft good theater out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin–remains to be seen.

PHOTO: Gene Smirnov

A version of this article originally appeared in the May issue of Philadelphia magazine.