Friday, November 07, 2008

Theater Review: A House With No Walls

Rating: @@@
Location: Timeline Theatre - Chicago
Author: Thomas Gibbons
Link: A House With No Walls

A few years ago, I saw Thomas Gibbons’ play, Permanent Collection, and still view it as one of the best plays I’ve seen. It centered around a fictionalized version of the Barnes Foundation, a phenomenal privately-endowed art museum just outside Philadelphia, and controversial decisions by a new African-American museum director. It provided a great debate, and much post-show thought, over the “race question” and was really well done.

So I was very much looking forward to seeing A House With No Walls, Gibbons’ third in his race trilogy (Bee-Luther-Hatchee was the first; I haven’t seen it. FYI: Gibbons is white), especially because Timeline, which utilizes an old church on Wellington as its performance space always puts on stellar shows and provides a lot of interesting backstory in its lobby displays and programs.

A House With No Walls also concerns itself with another real-life, Philadelphia racial controversy that developed over the discovery that the new Liberty Bell Center was being built on ground that once held a house in which George Washington lived while President, and more pointedly, his slave quarters (see more here). The play juxtaposes a somewhat fictionalized modern day argument over proper commemoration—between a liberal black activist (a la Jesse Jackson) and a conservative black academic on the center’s advisory panel—with the story of Oney Judge, one of Washington’s slaves who escaped to freedom.

The play was very well staged and performed, but I felt that the sheer polarization of the central characters was a bit too contrived and didn’t provide the palpable tension that I recalled with Permanent Collection. It was good, worth seeing (for just $16.60 through HotTix) and valuable for what I learned, but ultimately a good bit short of great.

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