I have a vision of an idealized universe that I hold deeply inside me, a time far in the future when the United Federation of Planets battles evil with crews of people that are respected for their abilities and the content of their characters. They are not despised for their outward appearance or judged by their planet of origin. Sadly, we are not in any way close to that vision. Our home planet is fractured into groups that despise each other based on race, religion, ethnicity, sex and sexual orientation. It is America’s enduring shame that slavery ever held sway in this land and that the legacy of that great evil still haunts us in very real, very palpable ways.
The enormity of slavery is too great to absorb, just as the great wars cannot really be comprehended in their totality no matter how many books of history are written. The reality is just too horrendous. So we chip away with smaller stories that help us understand, bits and pieces that can help us to enlightenment. Playwright Kemp Powers play, Little Black Shadows, now running at South Coast Repertory, deals with slavery as an intimate family drama. Set in Georgia in the 1850s, the play presents two child slaves, the boy, Colis (Giovanni Adams), and the girl, Toy (Chauntae Pink), the “little black shadows” of the title. They serve as attendants to their white counter parts, Daniel (Daniel Bellusci), and Mittie (Emily Yetter). They are like the body servants familiar to fans of Downton Abbey, a valet and lady’s maid, who dress their charges and do for them in whatever way is required. They do so with heads bowed and a minimum of verbal exchange. At night, Colis and Toy sleep beneath the raised beds of their charges and converse in hushed tones, speaking through a vent in the wall between the two bedrooms. They feel blessed to have such good jobs, grateful not to be out in the fields picking cotton beneath a brutal sun.
Daniel is the sensitive type who loves music above all things and likes nothing better than playing his flute. His twin sister is the ultimate, cruel cocquette. She is sure of herself and likes nothing better than destroying her rivals and disposing of suitors once she has won them. She has learned from her mother (Elyse Mirto), an attractive woman who has made her bargain with the driven man that is her husband. Father (Mark Doerr) is a hard, cocksure man who has made his rivals pay for the abuse he suffered from them as a child. He dotes on his daughter, while despising his effete son.
The cast, under the keen direction of May Adrales, is superb, their characters drawn with nuance and emotional power. The action benefits from the inventive scenic design by David M. Barber, which features smoothly changing scenes that roll in and out quickly moving from bedroom to dining room to parlor to exterior effortlessly. Sara Ryung Clement’s costume design accurately represents the antebellum period for both slave owners and slaves.
Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts create the sound design and original music, which is a vital component throughout the performance, beginning with an old spiritual that laments the slaves’ enduring situation, and ending with the cradle song “Hush-a-bye, Don’t You Cry, Go to Sleep My Little Baby.” The delicate airs emanating from Daniel’s flutes attest to that character’s innate sensitivity, but sadly cannot erase his station in life vis à vis that of Colis and Toy. The inventive projections and shadow puppetry by Hana S. Kim create a world beyond the insular confines of the “Big House.” The dialect coaching by Judith Moreland seems dead-on authentic to my ears.
Playwright Powers was inspired by his discovery of the volumes of slave narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project, which, between 1936 and 1938 gathered more than 2,300 slave narratives into the 17-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. This treasure can be found at https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938
Little Black Shadows continues through April 29 at South Coast Rep’s Julianne Argyros Stage.