“When Stars Align,” an ambitious theatrical event written by Carole Eglash-Kosoff and director John Henry Davis, could not be more timely. The racial divide between black and white Americans has surged into the public consciousness with vivid examples of police violence against blacks of both sexes and all ages, as well as an apparent backlash of violence against the police. And one might as well throw in the hateful rhetoric against immigrants now current in the run-up to the presidential election, as well as the continuing struggle for LGBT rights, all of which has unsettled the country to a degree not seen since the 1960s.
Set in the Louisiana of the Civil War Era, from first gunshots through the failure of Reconstruction, “When Stars Align” traces the conundrum of the racial bloodlines created by the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Black slaves, dehumanized and treated as chattel, were subject to the lust of their masters and the children inevitably produced who were, sometimes and in some cases, indistinguishable from their white parents, threatened the supposed purity of the white race and created a great variety of colors across the racial spectrum, from those who could “pass for white” to those of the darkest hues. Terms were created for those of mixed blood: quadroon, octoroon, quintroon, as well as terms like “high yellow” and “redbone.” The “one-drop” rule, socially and legalistically, had it that if one had an ancestor of African descent, no matter how remote, then that person must be considered black.
The play kicks off when Henry (Nick Ballard), the teenaged son of a wealthy plantation owner, rapes a young woman, Rose (affecting Allison Reeves), in the cotton fields in full view of the other slaves. In a searing scene, the child produced by this forced union is snatched away from his mother moments after birth. Given the name Thaddeus (Jason Woods) and raised by domestic slave Sarah (warm, dignified Tamiyka White), the boy is curiously beloved of his slave-owning grandfather, the cotton grower, Jedidiah (Veryle Rupp, reasonable in an unreasonable world). Jedidiah dotes on the boy giving him special treatment, teaching him to read and write. As a teenager, Thaddeus encounters a young white girl, Amy (Haley McHugh), a free-spirited tomboy, by a country stream and they spark, leading, over the many years of the play, to much danger, difficulty and no small amount of joy.
In illuminating the horrors, trials, heroism and nobility of the times, the story of “When Stars Align” is filled with incidents of drama, cruelty and danger for not only the slaves, but for the whites locked into an untenable, immoral system. The show is vast and episodic in form, relying on a narrative style in which characters sometimes describe certain aspects of their individual stories, relaying their internal feelings or external events as a short cut to moving the story along. If it was all acted out, it might have taken the form of Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata,” a nine-hour epic performed over three nights. With battle scenes, brothel scenes, and sub-plots, the show moves through the civil war and on to reconstruction with the rise of white resistance to black equality exemplified in lives of the characters. One of the most harrowing scenes is a scaled down version of the infamous Colfax Massacre. In this staged version, several Blacks are gunned down; in reality, they were slaughtered in great numbers, no less than a hundred-and-fifty and perhaps as many two hundred-and-eighty.
The cast of “When Stars Align” is first rate. Mr. Woods as Thaddeus carries the weight of show first as an adolscent man-child and later as an adult trying to find his way in a hostile confusing world. As his love interest Amy, Ms. McHugh matches his passion. As Thaddeus’s natural father, Henry, Mr. Ballard creates a cruel, lecherous, self-absorbed man of violence. As a high strung Southern belle desperate for marriage, Sarah Lyddan takes her character Elizabeth on a terrific character arc from hopeful schemer to dissolute laudanum addict. Charismatic Nic Few gives palpable power to his portrayals of Faris, Charlie and the Black Minister. And Jacques C. Smith is solidly appealing in the dual roles of Luther and Rufus.
As produced at Odyssey Theatre, the show uses an open stage designed by J. R. Bruce with lighting by Leigh Allen. Several wooden platforms provide variety with stylized trees hung with Spanish moss suggesting the deep South. The concrete wall upstage is colorfully lit to match the action of the play. Chairs are set round the perimeter of the playing area with costumes and props to be used in the scenes and actors often repair to those chairs to watch the action, giving their full attention to the stage and never distracting. The scheme is wonderfully theatrical. The costumes by Michael Mullen are excellent and represent the period faithfully.
Music and choreographed movement play an important part in the production. Before the show and at intermission, the delightful duo of violinist Eric Charles Jorgenson and guitarist-singer Kaitlin Huwe play and sing music of the time.
“When Stars Align” is a big show in a small space, filled with emotion. The show gathers power as it goes making a terrifically affecting evening of theatre. It continues through October 4 as a guest production at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.