A Matter of Worth, Live Garra Theatre
September 21, 2015
by, Britt Oliver
The opening scene unfolds with a woman, Ms. Memory, reading a storybook on a very small corner of the stage. With vast animated gestures and characterizations, Ms. Memory tells Hannah’s story to a group of wide-eyed children. White lights boldly illuminate the stage transporting the audience back in time to the days of vast southern cotton plantations, to the days before labor laws, to the days that felt hopeless to the millions of slaves who were victims of ceaseless oppression. The set design, created by Harlan Penn, served as the ideal vessel for capturing the harsh conditions of the period while offering a bit of southern comfort, a porch, a chair, and a small window to offer a tiny glimpse into the world.
Suddenly, Hannah appears, strong, bold, and seemingly secure in herself despite the fact that her master’s illness creates an uncertain future. Seventy-three year old Hannah guides the audience on her personal journey: from her initial experience as a long-term plantation slave to the jarring death of her master, placing her future in the hands of auctioneers. Her perspective offered a fresh focus on a portion of history often forgotten. Hannah’s harrowing story is told, with the help of her fellow field workers, rife with historical details that textbooks seem to have left out. For example, the fact that slaves were stripped of their clothing, their names, and ultimately their dignity. As Hannah’s story comes to a close, will she allow her auction block price of a single dollar to determine her worth?
For many African Americans, derogatory phrases and uneasy actions were unfortunate characteristics of this time including being called by racial slurs rather than by their given name, being malnourished, and receiving painful whippings by masters, and slave overseers. In order to show there was hope during those troubling times, director Wanda Whiteside incorporated inspirational spirituals, dances, and poetry to bridge the gap between slavery and African culture. The narrative was so profoundly poetic it bore a Shakespearian cadence.
It takes a strong ensemble to pull off such eloquent words with ease and emotional conviction. Whiteside assembled a talented, collaborative, collection of actors who were deeply connected to the storyline and eager to engage the audience in a captivating manor. Judy Leak’s depiction of Hannah reflected her wide emotional range as an actor. Whether she confidently informed us of Hannah’s various talents or tearfully explained how she was stripped of her birth name, Ms. Leak brought Hannah to life by giving her so many dimensions.
The Young Voices also played a pivotal part in the retelling of history. Their sheer presence, as they actively engaged in the story by virtue of listening, offered a direct connection from generation to generation. They also served as a metaphor for the fact that the past shall not be forgotten, but through understanding, the future will be a hopeful one. Ms. Memory further conveyed the hopeful undertone of the dialogue by reciting each tale with a bubbly burst of energy as she read Hannah’s story to the children.
Conversely, chorus members/plantation field workers Clyde McKnight, Antoinette Greene-Fisher, and Christa M. Bennett, offered raw performances as they recited grizzly facts that are often hard to stomach. Whiteside cleverly chose to engage the audience in the gritty historical recollections by having chorus members speak and move into the audience bringing us out of our comfort zone and into the harsh reality of slave life.
A Matter of Worth explores a time of degradation with dignity and creativity. Careful construction of the script, ensemble, and the crew allowed the audience to enter a troubling time while keeping the knowledge of a hopeful future in mind. This story is a must see for truth seekers old and young. Ms. Cole presents the facts in such a way that slavery is far from a mere period in history, slavery is finally personified.
A Matter of Worth plays through September 24, 2015 at Live
Garra Theatre performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville
Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (855) 575-4834, or purchase them online.
About Britt Oliver: Britt Oliver is an entertainment enthusiast. She enjoys writing, performing, and attending a wide array of shows in DC and beyond. As a budding playwright and poet, she derives inspiration from her urban adventures. Follow the fun on twitter @beingbrittoh.