The M Ensemble's Triumphant Tribute to Sojourner Truth
In the world of American theater, it's difficult to imagine more dramatically fertile subject matter than our history of slavery. It is terrifying even in theory, but Americans can't think about it theoretically. It was here; it happened. Slavery hits close to the bone: You never know if the ground on which your theater stands was once farmed by human chattel.
Yet despite that peculiar institution's geographic and temporal proximity, it still feels far, far away — so different from anything in modern America that even playwright Sandra Fenichel Asher's carefully drawn portrait of the former slave, abolitionist, and proto-feminist Sojourner Truth seems to be less about any particular person than about slavery as a whole. Sojourner probably wouldn't mind. Born into slavery in 1797 and free by the age of 30, the unlettered Sojourner (born Isabella Baumfree) spent the rest of her life telling her story and dispensing her accumulated wisdom as though that life were a stand-in for the entirety of the black female experience. The transcripts of her most famous speech, retroactively titled "Ain't I a Woman," read that way. Using her own experience as evidence, the speech refutes claim after claim about the alleged weaknesses and entitlements of the fairer sex, capping each refutation with a great cry of "And ain't I a woman?"
The M Ensemble, the nation's oldest black theater company, produces many biopics like A Woman Called Truth and knows how to choose the good ones. Like the best of them, Truth never tries contorting itself into a neat dramatic arc; it shows Sojourner's life as the chaotic, tragicomic jumble that most lives are. A moment of supreme triumph — Truth's recovery of a son who was sent as a gift from free New York to the slave-holding South — is followed matter-of-factly by the loss of that same son, just a few years later, when he disappears off a whaling ship and is never heard from again.
Apart from a pat denouement that tries too hard to be uplifting, Truth is unpredictable, eerie, and absorbing. It locates Sojourner primarily in her formative, bonded years, but skips forward continually. The show is framed by a time-traveling conceit that has the audience sitting in a hall sometime in the late 1860s or '70s, listening to Sojourner riff. In fast scenes connected by folk songs and snippets of Negro spirituals, we are taken from young Sojourner's separation from her mother and brother on the occasion of her first master's death to an early turn as the property of a cruel transplanted New Englander named John Neely. Next, just as quickly, we see Sojourner as a pipe-smoking tavern girl still in her tweens. Then the play opens up and slows down as we come to Sojourner's time with her final owner, John Durmont, during which she fell in love with a slave, Bob, from a nearby household. The relationship ended badly; when Bob's owner discovered the affair, Bob was savagely beaten and died soon after.
The slave life is a life without constants. Of the six actors onstage, only Christina Alexander, who plays Sojourner, portrays the same character throughout the show. No one else remained in Sojourner's life long enough to last the night. In technical terms, this demands a lot from the rest of the actors. In very few scenes, they have to define a character, make that character believable, and differentiate that character from the half-dozen others they'll portray. And it is here, engaged in these dramatic gymnastics, that The M Ensemble runs into a pernicious, touchy problem: The black actors are wonderful, but the white ones kind of suck.
I have a theory about this. If you are an exceptionally talented, established white actor in South Florida, you might like and respect The M Ensemble, but you wouldn't audition for it. Why would you? You stand no chance of getting a starring role. The white folks who do try out are auditioning explicitly for supporting roles. They're either beginners, amateurs, or desperate.
Again, this is only a theory, and I bring it up only because the problem has become so drearily predictable. In one M show after another, you can count on at least one mediocre white actor mucking up scenes that would otherwise be transcendent. It doesn't matter much — they are supporting roles, after all — but it does get on one's nerves. Unfortunately, there is no clear solution. Ditching white actors altogether would severely limit the number of plays at M's disposal. Until the company is rich enough to attract big-time white actors by outbidding theaters such as Florida Stage, it's a problem that M will simply have to deal with.
Which isn't so bad, really. Any time you get Christine Alexander, Carolyn Johnson, and Curtis Allen on a stage together, amazing things happen, no matter who is sharing the bill. Alexander's turn as Sojourner Truth is stylized, poised, seemingly young and old at the same time, and full of pain and resolve. Her singing voice is miraculous: a big, beautiful hurricane of an instrument, awe-inspiring and violent. Carolyn Johnson looks matronly and respectable when she's offstage, but put her in front of an audience and she's deliciously perverse: Between her half-dozen characters, she cackles like a harpy; sputters and squeals like a woman in the final, fatal throes of terminal brain syphilis; dances like a bar wench; and for a few moments, summons up a heartbreaking tenderness as Sojourner's long-lost mum.
As the production's lone young black male, Curtis Allen has to do an inordinate amount of heavy lifting. At various moments, he is Sojourner's young brother, her lover, and her son — and he plays the last role both as a six-year-old and as an adolescent. Yet Allen is a big, hunky man — looking at him, you'd never think he could effectively impersonate a child. To do it, he adopts a careful body language so meticulously stylized it's almost a kind of modern dance. But it's organic too: Within moments, you forget the artifice of the performance, and appreciation of Allen's craft gives way to deeper reactions somewhere in the gut. Watch him cowering in a courtroom, when, as Sojourner's six-year-old son, he is torn between recognizing his mother and obeying his master's command to keep silent. You can see Allen's grown-up biceps and massive pecs, but they don't register at all; on every level, you respond to the sight as though he were a child. Like A Woman Called Truth itself, it is utterly remarkable — and powerful enough to render the visage's incongruities meaningless.
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