A cardinal truth of American life: Scratch the present, and the past bleeds through. This was proved yet again in 2002, in history-ennobled yet racially troubled Philadelphia, when activists discovered that the new Liberty Bell Memorial planned by the National Parks Service wasn't just being built on the grounds of George Washington's old residence. It was being built on the grounds of his slaves' quarters.
A second truth of American life: When history troubles us, you're likely to learn more about it from the Unicorn Theatre than you are from All Things Considered. True to form, the Unicorn is exploring the Philadelphia controversy in Thomas Gibbons' A House With No Walls, an issue-driven drama that stares hard at this country's bruises. The plot would fit in one segment of The O'Reilly Factor. When civil rights leader Salif Camara (Danny Cox) gets wind of the museum plans, he and historian Allen Rosen (Matthew Rapport) cordon off and commandeer the postage stamp of soil where the slaves' home once stood. Salif bullhorns that this tiny, lost house is "sacred ground," and he won't budge until a slavery museum is erected. Historian Cadence Lane, a black conservative being wooed by top Republicans, is dispatched to deal with it.
Then come the polemics, which pingpong with reasonable drama. At issue: How does dwelling on past victimization affect contemporary blacks? Gibbons' gift for heated rhetoric ensures that both Cadence and Salif make points it's hard not to nod along with. But Salif's argument is more complex. He describes the house where the slaves once lived as a "shed" for "tools," and this idea resonates.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Lynn King is bobbed and blue-suited like Condoleezza Rice. As Cadence, author of a bestselling screed titled The Race Circus, which gene-splices Dinesh D'Souza with Bill Cosby, King plays so cold that hauling her off to the Arctic Circle might buy us a few more years before Al Gore's doomsday. That chill is partly by design, of course — uptightness is the secret handshake of the white world she has accessed. But she hurts, too. She must face down the central contradiction of being against affirmative action even as she benefits from an informal variation of it; she's even pelted with Oreos when speaking at colleges. She warms in rare but affecting private moments that are well-paced by director Mark Robbins. And she tugs at our sympathies by illustrating how much effort black conservatives must expel simply to avoid cracking up.
Cadence and Salif are moored somewhere between archetype and character. Like Kin, Danny Cox makes the most of it. A consummate showman, Cox revels in the political theater Salif has made a career of, lifting his every speech into music: he's singing the blues here.
All this present-tense debate is enriched by the inclusion of Washington's slaves onstage. Teisha Bankston and Jaqwan Sirls gather in the roped-off square that represents the former slaves' quarters, sitting silently, forgotten by the men and women debating their legacy. Sometimes, Bankston and Sirls get a scene. Their dialogue is unrealistically florid, steeped casually in metaphors it would take most of us full days to hammer out. It's also daring, haunting and true, the kind of honest talk we sorely need.
The past slumbered unscratched through the recent construction at Crown Center, that one-time high-end mall that is now a one-building theater district. The old movie theater has been gutted, and the Off Center Theatre — a bookable theater theater — has opened, giving itinerant companies such as Eubank Productions or Musical Theatre Heritage one more oasis to frequent in their wanderings. Compact but comfortable, Off Center offers three banks of seats arranged at the thrust-out edges of a square, floor-level performance space as much a dance floor as it is a stage. The room accommodates 250 people, but it doesn't feel empty with fewer, which is key when smaller companies play there. The best that can be said for Off Center: During a good show, the space melts away. This happened for me last Thursday during the theater's inaugural production, Kansas City Actors Theatre's evening of one-act plays by Alan Bennett and Samuel Beckett.
Bennett's comic monologues might seem a strange fit with Beckett's existential despair, but the result is the most arresting night of theater in recent memory. (Teasing out the thematic links is part of the fun.) Director David Fritts opens with Bennett's "Her Big Chance," a grim but sparkling story about the adventures of Lesley, an incompetent British actress, on the set of an exploitation film. Julie Marie Taylor is smart about playing dumb, speaking in a vapid, grandiose style, pronouncing everything EEN-tresting and maintaining a shed-yule. As she spins her sad tale, she manages to lift Lesley's every humiliation into some pretend triumph. Good as this is, the night takes true flight with "Bed Among the Lentils," Bennett's wildly funny look at the lonely life of a vicar's wife. As a woman whose drab exterior disguises real rage, Cynthia Rider is extraordinary, as heartbreaking as she is hilarious, building from a mopey heap to heights of human comedy so smoothly that I kept thinking of my mother's insistence that cold water boils quickest. This is a can't-miss performance.
After intermission, Jim Birdsall has his way with Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. In a meta-karaoke twist, Birdsall — who spends much of the play listening to tapes of his younger self — is actually acting with his younger self. This production utilizes recordings that Birdsall made in his twenties. The result is a penetrating, sometimes exasperating work, right in line with much absurdist theater. By final curtain, I was moved, yes, but also relieved it was over. Mostly, I was plotting to find a free night to see Rider again.