TOM Theater Review
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s production of Tom is artistic director Ellen Geer’s adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Geer, who also directed, added post-Civil War scenes depicting Stowe (Melora Marshall), who is still fretting over slavery. These additional 1886 vignettes enable the playwright to presciently ponder the plight of Blacks after the Reconstruction Era, but also in our own times wherein police and vigilante violence, institutionalized racism, the racist Trump candidacy, and more continue to beset and bedevil African Americans. These Stowe sequences, which are stowed away and interwoven into the fabric of the play - which is mostly a dramatization of the original book - also allows Tom to explore feminist issues, particularly the role of women in literature. After all, Stowe was, as Lincoln (perhaps apocryphally) called her, “the little lady who made this great war.”
Thus, most of Tom, like its literary source, is set in the antebellum south. Many are likely to find this excursion way down yonder to the land of cotton to be quite disturbing. The systematic cruelty required to maintain and enforce slavery is unforgotten and is here rather graphically depicted onstage. Along with whippings there are detestable auctions of humans, breaking up families. (Speaking of which, you might want to leave the kiddies at home and more sensitive souls may be disturbed by the harsh historical realities depicted onstage.)
There were times during this harrowing, sometimes melodramatic work that it really made my blood boil. I wanted to leap onstage and punch a slaver in the face
All human beings yearn to be free and in order to rein this natural liberty-loving tendency in, slave masters like the despicable Simon Legree (Thad Geer) had to constantly use brutal force. The perpetual abuse inherent in a dehumanizing system that reduced flesh and blood thinking and feeling people to mere property is truly revolting (in every sense of the word). There were times during this harrowing, sometimes melodramatic work that it really made my blood boil. I wanted to leap onstage and punch a slaver in the face, and I had to remind myself, “it’s only a play; they’re just actors playing parts. Calm down, Rampy boy!”
What’s amazing about Uncle Tom’s Cabin is how it is an “Ur” text, the archetypal source of so much that has come down to us in our culture till today, not the least of which is what has became an insult, that is, calling someone an “Uncle Tom.” But was the Tom of the era of 1850’s Fugitive Slave Act what we now call an Uncle Tom, that is, an excessively obedient, servile Black who kisses whitey’s ass.
(BTW, when I use the term “whitey” I don’t mean all white people but rather white supremacists per se. Not all of the Caucasians depicted in Tom are wicked - Miss Ophelia, an abolitionist from Vermont visiting her family down Dixie way played by Elizabeth Tobias, is critical of the “peculiar institution” and the play’s anti-slavery Quakers are heroic.)
Gerald Rivers is an interesting choice to depict Tom. A mainstay at the Theatricum, Rivers has played Shakespearean characters and so on at this Topanga Canyon outpost beneath the stars. But the dreadlocked Rivers is best known, and rightfully so, for his perfect portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, which he does in an excellent one-man show. Indeed, Rivers is much better than David Oyelowo as King in 2014’s Selma. (Note to Hollywood casting directors: You don’t have to go all the way to ye jolly olde England to cast King - you have an African American actor right here in L.A. who can do a better job. I’m just saying…)
In Stowe’s novel and WGTB’s version, it’s true that Tom declines to become a runaway and is extremely loyal to his more benevolent masters. However, Tom does urge others to flee slavery and ride that underground railroad to freedom. And most importantly, he refuses a direct order by Legree to do something ethically abhorrent to, literally, save his own skin (to find out exactly what, Dear Reader, get thee to the Theatricum). In doing so, Tom is arguably defying slavery and committing an act of civil disobedience. One could argue that Tom - with his Christian, turn-the-other-cheek faith and pacifism - is an archetype for Dr. King himself, who, like Tom, was consumed by racism.
Recommended for You
On the other hand, as Durant Fowler - the actor who played George Harris - pointed out to me at the world premiere’s after party, his character may well be the prototype for Malcolm X. George joins Eliza (Jasmine Gatewood) as they run away with their son (in a canny bit of casting Durant’s real life son, Angelo Fowler, plays his onstage child) towards freedom in Canada. When pigs citing the Fugitive Slave Act attempt to apprehend the trio to return the “property” to their “rightful owner,” George opens fire on them. One could make the point that George is also the literary archetype for Jamie Foxx as the title character in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Django Unchained.
And while we’re at, the friendly relationship between the little blonde plantation daughter Eva (Lily Andrew) and Tom was also the prototype for the onscreen pairing of Bill Bojangles Robinson and another young girl, Shirley Temple, in 1935 flicks such as The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel. Apparently, these interracial pairings were deemed acceptable and unthreatening because the age differences between the Black male adult and the white female child excluded sex from the “innocent” equation. (Since Blacks were regarded by racists as being “childlike”, this coupling may have been widely perceived as being between two children.)
Eliza’s fleeing across ice floes on a partially melted river, of course, influenced D.W. Griffith’s shooting of a similar, dramatic icy scene featuring Lillian Gish in the 1920 silent morality play Way Down East.
The WGTB Tom production makes good use of Gospel music and Negro Spirituals - some are performed live, while others are recordings, including some Paul Robeson numbers. As usual, the amphitheater, set in the hilly wilds of deepest darkest Topanga, makes good use of the rustic space in an environmental theater type of way. Actors sometimes bolt up and down the aisles (so watch your tootsies!). And when Eliza and Harry flee, they are glimpsed above the set per se on the hillside making their way through the forest - the clever theatrical equivalent of a long shot.
Standouts in the cast include Earnestine Phillips in a double role as Tom’s wife Aunt Chloe and Prue (Mammy-like archetypes), a WGTB stalwart equally at home reciting Shakespeare. The brutal slaves Sambo (Rodrick Jean-Charles) and Quimbo (Clarence Powell) are quite chilling as Legree’s enforcers - they reminded me of those traitorous “kapos,” Jews who collaborated with the Nazis to oppress their own brethren in the concentration camps.
It’s uncanny, in terms of how art expresses the zeitgeist, that this production was unleashed almost to the exact day on the 50th anniversary of Stokely Carmichael’s famous 1966 “Black Power” speech. The heartbreaking two-act Tom reminds us that, alas, the problems Stowe exposed and Stokely opposed continue in our own day and age. Racism may be America’s original sin - but unfortunately, it continues today. Yet it seems appropriate that this version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is being performed (literally) near the cabin of Woody Guthrie, the people’s troubadour who fought for truth, justice and the progressive way with his guitar - that machine that killed fascists, as Woody said. Onstage, the Stowe of 1886 denies that slavery has really ended and the same could be said of our own time, as this drama reminds us that racial injustice persists. The struggle continues.
Tom is playing in repertory through Oct. 1 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.