In White America/Uhuru! | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

In White America/Uhuru! 

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IN WHITE AMERICA

Stage Left Theatre

It's a good thing I saw Uhuru! two days before seeing In White America. Otherwise I'd be tempted to say African Americans have made distressingly little progress since 1963, when In White America was first produced off-Broadway. It depicts the struggle of the African people in a fiery documentary of their history in America. Thirty years later the emotions it inspires--and many of the leftover problems of slavery--are still smoldering. Uhuru!, a children's play adapted and directed by Phillip Edward Van Lear, is an enthusiastic, encouraging, all-out celebration of the African spirit.

Through its straightforward presentation of the facts, In White America becomes a testimony to that spirit almost unintentionally. Playwright Martin B. Duberman collected African American historical documents to create his play, saying he wished "to describe what it has been like to be a Negro in this country (to the extent that a white man can describe it)." You might thing a play composed solely of historical documents would be dry and boring, but the history of the African people in America is at once too horrifying and too inspirational for that.

All Americans have a murky knowledge of the hardships Africans endured in this country. What makes In White America interesting is the way it brings to life authentic details. A journal entry by a doctor on a slave ship describes the deplorable living conditions of newly captured Africans: "The floors of their rooms can be so covered with blood and mucus . . . that it resembles a slaughterhouse." An exchange of letters between Jourden Anderson, a freed black man, and his former owners--in which they ask him to "come back and live" with them again--is laughable, preposterous, and entirely true. The first act ends poignantly with the first black soldiers fighting in the Civil War, singing "My country 'tis of thee," pledging their allegiance to the American flag--the same flag that kept them oppressed for nearly two centuries.

In White America brings to life lesser-known history through the words of both famous and unknown Americans. We learn about the attitudes of both blacks and whites toward the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass's 1866 appeal to Andrew Johnson for the right of his people to vote, the rise of the Klu Klux Klan after blacks did receive the right to vote. There are some interesting tidbits, such as Woodrow Wilson's 1912 decision to segregate federal employees and a request by the U.S. Army in France after World War I that the French people refrain from intimate contact or familiarity with African American troops.

Director Drew Martin steers a steady course through this emotionally volatile material, avoiding sentimentality by letting the words and events speak for themselves. His ensemble of six (Crystal Barnes, Ed Dubbs, Earl Alphonso Fox, Marguerite Hammersley, Scott Lowell, and Joe Shoffner) deftly assume a multitude of roles. This is powerful theater for the simple reason that it taps into a powerful and moving history.

UHURU!

Touchstone Theatre

It's thanks to an increased awareness of African American history that a play such as Uhuru! can be created. Uhuru!, which means "freedom" in Swahili, is a lively, fun-filled play celebrating African culture in all its colors. Educational and uplifting, it incorporates African rhythms, dance, and oral traditions to celebrate the triumphs of African Americans. That being said, this play is just a ton of fun. It makes me wish I were a kid again.

Uhuru! opens with dancers Toni Bark, Timothy Jenkins, Audri M. Howard, Mignon Y. McPherson, and Michelle Renee Thompson getting down to a funky bass, hip-hopping as they chant "A-B-C-D-E-F-G, African American history." Then they take each letter of the alphabet and give it a word: C for community, D for discovery, E for education, F for family. The song is followed by "The Frog Who Wanted to Be a Singer," which combines a variety of African tales to create a delightful story in which the audience participates. It's the sort of educational fun that Electric Company and Sesame Street deliver--and though it's meant for kids, it's interesting for adults too.

Then there are some traditional African dances from Brazil, Haiti, the United States, and Senegal, accompanied by the drumming of Alfred Baker and Horace Brown. Then it's over, and I guess that would be my only complaint about Uhuru! It was so much fun I didn't want it to end.

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