APRIL 2, 2013
“Who is Uncle Tom?” asks a disembodied voice. That is a question asked throughout the play “uncle tom: de-constructed,” which was performed at the Grace Street Theater last weekend.
The play presented a deep analysis of the famous novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe and offered commentary on race relations in the United States.
The play is part of The Conciliation Project, or TCP, a group that works to promote an open dialogue about racism in America in order to move forward.
The group was founded by Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, a VCU associate professor of acting and directing. In 2001, Pettiford-Wates was teaching a class on breaking down “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and wanted to create a dramatic work that would analyze the book’s effect on American society since its publication in 1852.
“This is the show that birthed The Conciliation Project,” Pettiford-Wates said. “The work has been about undoing racism in America, giving people a way to talk about it by using the play itself, the object of what they talk about, which makes it easier to talk about.”
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” tells the tale of a slave and the people he meets as he is sold from one slaveholder to another. While Beecher Stowe was an abolitionist, the popularity of her novel led to the creation of several negative stereotypes towards African-Americans through characters like the submissive Uncle Tom and the “wild child” Topsy.
While Pettiford-Wates said she thinks Beecher Stowe’s heart was in the right place, she feels the novel did not accurately represent the truth about slavery, particularly through how Beecher Stowe created “good slave master” characters.
“In creating the dichotomy of the good master and the bad master, (Beecher Stowe) unintentionally gave the pro-slavery side ammunition,” Pettiford-Wates said. “She then also created this idea of a ‘bad slave.’ That is a preposterous contention. There is no such thing as a ‘good slave master.’”
The play performed last weekend was a shortened version of the 2001 version of the show, running for only one act. The show featured a small cast of 10 actors, all of whom were portraying minstrel characters. Half of the actors were in either black face or white face and wore gloves to hide their real race.
The play’s music director and operations manager for TCP, Andrienne Wilson, said that minstrelsy is one of the hardest stereotypes to portray.
“It’s the worst of human nature in character,” she said. “The actors do it to have a conversation with the audience.”
When rehearsing the play, the actors have to commit to their minstrel roles. Once they apply their makeup, they are forbidden from talking to cast members of a different face color.
“It’s so far removed from who they are that it’s dangerous to act as oneself,” Wilson said.
In the play, the cast performs various scenes deconstructing scenes from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and racial issues found in today’s society, while also saying lines like “I can’t be racist; I’m a liberal,” and “I’m glad I live in a place where racism isn’t an issue.”
These scenes are broken up with musical numbers, featuring actual spirituals and folk songs from the era like “Dixie” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” but also including some original compositions.
Wilson performed all the music on a keyboard while dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Pettiford-Wates explained that the Klan is still a present icon in today’s society, so having her there is representative of that symbol.
The play ends with all the actors removing their makeup and speaking truthfully about the issues of race, while also tying in to other instances of injustice in history, like the Tuskegee Experiment and the death of Florida teen, Trayvon Martin.
After the play, Pettiford-Wates led a dialogue with the members of the audience. The dialogue allowed the audience members to discuss aspects of the play and how it relates to their lives.
It also allowed the audience to discuss issues they face today, like being considered “too white,” as well as scenes in the play that affected audience members, such as Wilson in her Klan outfit or the portrayal of characters like Topsy the slave girl.
Pettiford-Wates believes that the project is important because it is moving forward away from racism in America.
“This is about building bridges for understanding, recognition and acknowledgement of our history together so that we can move forward and make a change,” Pettiford-Wates said.