Thomas Bradshaw Causes Fevers to Rise in “Southern Promises”

It’s a huge challenge to produce and mount plays that tackle the difficult subjects of slavery and/or race relations. There is always the problem of theatrical voice, sensitivity, and racial currency. Race relations and slavery are very sensitive subjects for the theatre to take on. And even though slavery in the US ended over 150 years ago, racial discrimination and inequity continues for African Americans.

Thomas Bradshaw in his 2008 play “Southern Promises” re-examines slavery and the residual effects of such a brutal social and economic system of oppression. In this production of “Southern Promises,” The Bats, the resident acting company at the Flea, boldly revisits slavery with an interracial cast that contains people color playing both the servants and the dominant class.

“Southern Promises” centers on a promise made by the dying plantation owner that his slaves be set free after his death. Though the plantation owner wills manumission of his slaves in his will, the patriarch’s wife goes against his will, literally, and keeps the slaves in bondage, contributing her dead husband’s desire for manumission to his fevered dementia at the end of his life.

There are many things in this production that serves this incendiary subject in a great way. Though the utilitarian set is almost stark with a plantation backdrop, it is surprisingly functional and serves the production adequately.

The Bats acting company takes on all the characters and though some of the black actors play white antebellum roles, the non-traditional casting does not detract from the incendiary nature and forcefulness of the script. One wonders if Bradshaw was inspired or drew reference from Jean Genet’s iconic play “The Blacks,” where the blacks actors took on the roles of the black and white characters. Whether Bradshaw borrowed from Genet’s “The Blacks,” the non-traditional castings works in this production.

If Bradshaw’s goal in “Southern Promises” was to demonstrate the historical legacy of slavery, Bradshaw skillfully proved that the remnants of slavery are still with us. Consider the white’s description of slaves as childlike, sexually immoral, and intellectually inferior. Black folks are still described as having these character flaws. Bradshaw also brilliantly inserted biblical scripture and references in the script, demonstrating how slave owners used the Bible to justify slavery and their white privilege. Hmm, doesn’t too far removed from what some white supremicists currently do.

Where this production of “Southern Promises” did have some challenges were in the southern, antebellum accents, which unfortunately most of the cast was not able to pull off. And some of the simulated, sexually explicit scenes didn’t really move the story forward and seemed gratuitous in nature.

Standouts in the cast was Brittany Zaken as Elizabeth, mistress of the plantation, who expertly distilled the chilly, cruel nature of plantation mistresses while being aware that their power was limited by their gender. Shakur Tolliver was very good as the docile slave Benjamin. And special acknowledgement goes to Marcus Jones as David, the brother preacher of Elizabeth. Jones really knows how to conjure up the spirit of evangelical, revivalist preachers of that day.

Photos courtesy of Joan Marcus/ Spin Cycle NYC

Though “Southern Promises” is an incendiary drama with racially sensitive language and scenes, Thomas Bradshaw should be congratulated for telling it like it was, causing us to understand that though many things have changed, the memory of and the toxic shrapnel of slavery lives on. Will we ever be delivered from this scourge on our history? Well, only if we tell the truth!! “Southern Promises” runs through April 14 at the Flea Theater. For more information, go to theflea.org.

—William S. Gooch

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