Stage review: Prime Stage carries us back to the times of slavery
Friday, May 19, 2000
By Rebecca Redshaw
We don’t know enough about our history. You can still find arrowheads buried in your backyard, left by Indians who lived in the Western Pennsylvania hills centuries ago. You can still visit secret rooms for runaway slaves built into old frame homes that hug the banks of the Ohio River not more than 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh.
“Wade in the Water,” the Prime Stage Production currently running at the Hazlett Theatre on the North Side, offers a glimpse of local history most of us definitely don’t know enough about, the emancipation of slaves via the underground railroad.
Lynne Conner’s play in two acts focuses on the escape to freedom by Vina, played by Tracey D. Turner, and her young son Henry, portrayed engagingly by L.J. Duncan.
Their journey is a long, arduous one as they follow the stars at night and walk, whenever possible, in streams and rivers so that the hound dogs used to track runaways can’t detect their scent.
In the dual role of Storyteller and Henry (as an adult), David Minniefield steps in and out of the shadows relaying to the audience some of the trials and tribulations of the time. Reading a warrant issued for Vina’s capture he charges that she “is suspected of knowing how to read and write.”
While the family makes its way north, two young people meet, one black student, played by William Banks, and one white reporter, Kate Cardille Rogal. They reluctantly bond together in a group called “The Anti-Slavery Junior Society.” Working in code, they cautiously facilitate their leg of the escape for slaves via the underground railroad through the city of Pittsburgh.
Leery of the youngsters’ activities, white antagonist Edmund Ruffin, played by Marcus Muzopappa, is a constant thorn in their sides. His suspicions are confirmed and confronted when the mother and son are sheltered for the night.
Playwright Conner gives voice to the North Star, which sings spirituals that do more than praise the Lord. Shawnee Lake’s rich contralto is a constant presence overlooking the runaways and singing words of warning and advice. “(I’ll Meet You at the Station) When the Train Comes Along,” “Walk Together Children,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” are but a few of the messages relayed in unsuspected lyrics.
The intimacy of the Hazlett Theatre is a good space for this play; however, even though the action occurs at night, there’s no reason it should take place in virtual darkness. It was difficult to see the actors’ faces and while this is an interesting affect at times for an entire evening it can prove fatiguing on the eyes. It would have been helpful to see Turner’s facial expressions as she delivered her impassioned bedtime story describing her roots to her dozing son.
Direction by Wayne Brinda is at best uncomplicated, although some of the crucial scenes staged close to the audience are lost to those sitting beyond the fifth row.
Ultimately, the heart and soul of “Wade in the Water” never wavers. It makes the audience think. Duncan delivers all of his lines with an ease seldom found in young talent, but none more emphatically than when he states, “We’ve got to have two names. In the free world everyone has two names!”
Rebecca Redshaw is a playwright and author who free-lances for the Post-Gazette.