WATERTOWN - With its "rolling world premiere" of "A House With No Walls," New Repertory Theatre extends two traditions that have become an important part of its identity: encouraging the development of new work and using its stage to explore the charged and painful topic of race in the United States.
You can only admire New Rep for taking on these challenges, and in this play Thomas Gibbons supplies much to admire as well. So it's disappointing to have to report that while "A House With No Walls" addresses many important and engaging questions, it is more successful as a staged debate than it is as a fully realized work of theater.
Like Gibbons's earlier play (and New Rep production) "Permanent Collection," "House," premiering here as part of the National New Play Network, uses a fictionalized museum setting as a microcosm of the relationships between black and white Americans, both past and present. But where "Permanent Collection" focused on questions of artistic merit and cultural con text, "House" goes right to the center of the wound: slavery.
The house in question is a tiny outbuilding behind George Washington's Philadelphia townhouse, where (in a plot loosely based on actual events) a Museum of American Liberty is now being built. But this building, we soon learn, housed nine of Washington's slaves - and the grim irony of celebrating liberty in a place that destroyed it unleashes a furious and often fascinating debate.
On one side stands Salif Camara, a weary but still fiery black activist who demands, with bullhorn and banners, that the museum revise its plans and include a comprehensive exhibit on slavery. On the other is Cadence Lane, a black conservative historian who argues that such a "shrine" would only perpetuate an unhealthy focus on black "victimhood."
Well, this is all interesting, and Gibbons gives each some strong and finely crafted arguments to support their apparently irreconcilable views. He also tosses a publicity-minded white museum director and a white "guilty liberal" professor into the mix, reminding us that all of us, of every color, must come to terms with our conflicted history of liberty and slavery. And, for good measure, he dramatizes the lives of two slaves who lived in the house: Ona Judge, who longs for freedom and is encouraged toward it by Philadelphia's early abolitionists, and her brother, Austin.
Each character is potentially fascinating, and New Rep's actors bring as much depth and specificity to them as they can. In particular, Johnny Lee Davenport is a mercurial, charismatic powerhouse as Salif, nicely counterpointed by Riddick Marie's cool sharpness as Cadence; Kortney Adams brings a quiet aura of courage tinged with fear to Ona.
Too often, though, the nuances of character take a back seat to the imperatives of argument, as Cadence launches into a long, expository account of her scholarly research and political conclusions or Salif engages his liberal white friend Allen (affable but a little lost, as neatly realized by Michael Kaye) in prolonged discussions of history and politics. Even when Michael and Cadence revisit their shared past, it feels less like an emotional development than a chance for the playwright to take his arguments in a new direction.
Many of these difficulties could be solved by judicious trimming; it's not that the characters are saying anything we don't believe they'd say, but rather that they go on and on saying it. Director Lois Roach might've also found ways to weave together the past and present action more fluidly. Cristina Todesco's set provides a powerful visual of the disputed ground, with a simple rope staking out a painfully tiny square at center stage, but the spaces around it feel indistinctly imagined and sometimes awkwardly used.
These flaws raise the question of whether staging multiple premieres at different theaters within a 12-month span, as the New Play Network requires of its members, is, in fact, the most helpful strategy for refining new plays. Yes, it gives playwrights a chance to see their work come to life in several different ways, and presumably to notice what succeeds and what doesn't across the board. But does it also blur their focus and give them less targeted feedback than they'd receive by working with one theater at a time?
It may be too soon to answer such questions for "A House With No Walls." But it will be instructive to see how this intelligent, thought-provoking, and yet imperfect play will develop as it continues to grow.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.