PowerPoint-style history of a former slave family

Posted: March 12, 2012

Ain Gordon's project, In This Place . . ., is to find forgotten historic stories and theatrically remember them, rescuing them from a vanished past. His 18-month residency at the Painted Bride Art Center will eventually include a Philadelphia story in what will become a series of plays. But this show, the first installment, takes place in Lexington, Ky.

It was here Gordon found an old house, set for demolition, that turned out to have been built by Samuel Oldham in 1835. Oldham was a freed slave who bought his wife, Daphney, and their sons freedom. Who were these people? They lived in the house four years and then were gone. The Lexington archivist could find no headstones or any record of where or when they were born or buried. And so Gordon invented personalities and events for this couple - how they met, courted, married, and raised two sons in that big, brick, two-story house.

Michelle Hurst plays Daphney Oldham, now a ghost, dead a hundred years, trying to retrieve her past, her life. That she knows she is a ghost performing in a theater with frequent meta comments ("Second Acts are tough") seems a device both fake and unnecessary. There are blanks in her story, omissions; some are a recognizable function of the way memory works, some parts the playwright chose not to fill in. In This Place . . . is about history, which, like memory, like drama, is necessarily selective; you can't include everything.

Yet some omissions are odd: As the decades go by, there is no mention of the Civil War, although the Oldhams lived through it, and surely this would have mattered to a black family living in Kentucky. And it seems transparently clear that a male playwright created this female voice - how unlikely it is that a woman would barely mention her children?

Knowing that we wonder if she loved Samuel, she says, "You ask such modern questions." Daphney asks us to imagine a time when lives were lived in silence (except for, say, crickets) and darkness (except for, say, a candle). In This Place . . . conjures up the texture of another time, another place, through personalities thickly drawn through dialogue (Hurst plays Daphney and deep-voiced Sam).

And so, the irritating use of technology seems shockingly inappropriate. Why all this audio/visual accessorizing? Why two tech guys sitting onstage with sound boards, monitors, and computers? Hurst can surely hold any stage herself without projections of images and portions of the script.

This is theater as PowerPoint, trivializing the fascinating subject matter and distracting from the strong performance.


Follow Toby Zinman on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.phillystage.com

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