EgoPo's "Uncle Tom's Cabin' at Plays and Players (1st review)

Who was Eliza Harris?

Ed Swidey (left) as Tom, Langston Darby as Legree: Racial role reversals. (Photo: Jenna Kuersi.)
Ed Swidey (left) as Tom, Langston Darby as Legree: Racial role reversals. (Photo: Jenna Kuersi.)

As the adapters Lane Savadove and Glenn Odom observe in their program notes, Uncle Tom's Cabin is really two antithetical spectacles. The first was Harriet Beecher's Stowe's revolutionary 1852 novel, which dramatized the inhuman horror of slavery so effectively that it was widely credited (even, supposedly, by Lincoln) with inciting the Civil War.

The second, in the ensuing decades, consisted of equally popular stage productions that somehow managed, especially in the era of minstrel shows of the late 19th Century, to reinforce the demeaning stereotypes of black people that Stowe's novel had sought to erase.

So how does a theater company dedicated (this year, at least) to faithfully conveying the bygone spirit of American vaudeville mount a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin without reviving all those old nasty racist images? In the 21st Century, will the saintly Uncle Tom, the courageous young mother Eliza Harris, the conscience-stricken but gutless slave owner Augustine St. Clair, the brutal Simon Legree and the rest of Stowe's characters come across as genuine humans or cardboard archetypes?

Racial role reversals

EgoPo Classic Theatre's current production meets the challenge amply, and in some case downright ingeniously. You enter the Plays and Players— itself an ideal venue for a trip into the past, a little jewel of a theater built in 1912— to confront what appears to be a human tableau onstage consisting of 15 antebellum characters. As you settle into your seat, you notice that the figures are moving ever so slightly against the background of a slow Sousa march.

Suddenly the music speeds up, and so do the people— but only for a few seconds, before resuming their previous stately poses and equally stately music. This symbolic demonstration of the folly of freezing time provides a fitting introduction for what's to come.

Instead of softening the original text's harsh references to blacks, Savadove and Odom have hit upon a delicious device: All their white characters are portrayed by black actors, and vice versa. Thus we witness the novel spectacle of white field hands picking cotton and singing Negro spirituals, while elegantly attired black slave owners discuss the relative values of the niggers they buy and sell.

Chastising the audience

The role reversal reaches its logically absurd extreme when the cold-blooded white slave trader Haley— played by Langston Darby, who is black— turns to the audience and chastises us for looking askance at him; after all, he's just a middleman filling an economic need, and very effectively too.

In effect, this production not only disarms but also upends our subconscious racial assumptions about power and powerlessness in American society, at least for one evening. It's precisely the sort of discomforting experience that Harriet Beecher Stowe sought to provoke with her novel.

(The playwright David Ives provides a similarly discomforting experience— regarding gender roles— in Venus In Fur, when an actress induces her male director to switch roles while reading a two-person script about male-female domination and submission.)

Escape from drudgery

At a running time of two hours and 45 minutes, EgoPo's Uncle Tom's Cabin is much too long by 21st-Century theatrical standards but, again, very faithful to the 19th Century in which these plays flourished: a time when 90 percent of Americans lived on farms, and rural audiences were grateful for any diversion from the stultifying business of milking cows and feeding pigs from sunup to sundown. Blacks in antebellum America yearned to escape from slavery; whites, from drudgery.

(Consider, for example, Abraham Lincoln's reception when he visited Atchison, Kansas in December 1859. Kansas had suffered a bloody war over the slavery issue just two years earlier, and Atchison remained a hotbed of pro-slavery sentiment. Yet Lincoln— the pre-eminent foe of extending slavery into the west— was greeted by the town's leading citizens and escorted by a brass band to his speech in a local church, where he addressed a packed house as well as hundreds more who stood outside or hung from trees to hear him. After 90 minutes Lincoln suggested that perhaps he was speaking too long, but the crowd shouted, "Go on! Go on!," and so he spoke for another 50 minutes. This incident may be a reflection on Lincoln's legendary ability to turn his enemies into friends, but it's also a reflection on the sheer hunger for celebrity of a small town on the far reaches of civilization.)

A composite Eliza

In any case, I would submit that contemplating Uncle Tom's Cabin isn't simply a matter of choosing between the novel and its various theatrical adaptations. Uncle Tom was more than a work of fiction; it was an attempt to represent real people who actually existed.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived in Cincinnati from 1832 to 1850, often insisted that everything described in Uncle Tom's Cabin actually happened. In her 1853 follow-up book, A Key To Uncle Tom's Cabin, and in subsequent prefaces to the novel itself, she purported to annotate the factual bases for her novel.

For example, the fictitious slave Eliza Harris— who escaped Kentucky with her baby by crossing the frozen Ohio River to the free state of Ohio— was actually a composite of three different real women. One was a beautiful mulatto slave girl whom Stowe had met many years earlier on a visit to a Kentucky plantation. The second was an escaping slave who had been hauled many miles over land and across a stream by Stowe's husband and brother in 1839. The third was an unnamed woman who, with a two-year-old child clinging to her neck, crossed the Ohio River by leaping across cracking ice floes to the outskirts of Cincinnati— an incident first reported in an antislavery newspaper in 1847.

(A fourth possibility, not mentioned by Stowe: Forrest Wilson's 1941 biography of Stowe states very positively that in 1834 Stowe was told about a young slave girl's escape over the ice some 50 miles east of Cincinnati.)

Hiding place

To be sure, as Stowe's biographer Edward Wagenknecht has put it, "Scholarly accuracy was beyond Harriet Beecher Stowe; she told different stories concerning the origin of Uncle Tom's Cabin and ascribed Eliza and the ice-crossing episode to a number of different sources, both literary and experiential." On the other hand, as Professor Russell B. Nye observed in a 1973 introduction to Uncle Tom's Cabin, "Escapes across the frozen Ohio seem not to have been unusual."

I first became interested in Eliza Harris in the mid-1960s, when I lived in Jay County in east-central Indiana. In the hamlet of Balbec, some 40 miles south of Fort Wayne, I noticed a roadside monument announcing "A station on the underground railroad. Tradition has it that Eliza Harris of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame rested here on her way to Canada."

Upon further investigation, I discovered that the abandoned log cabin "station" was still standing, about 100 yards back from the road, camouflaged by a dense grove of trees, just as it was 160 years ago. There I was able to climb the rickety stairs to the second floor and see with my own eyes the hidden closet and loft where runaway slaves had been concealed.

Rachel's kitchen

Upon still further investigation I learned about the network of Quakers in that area who funneled escaped slaves to freedom in Canada and particularly about the owners of that specific cabin: Rachel Sillivan, a plan-spoken Quaker woman, and her second husband, a Wesleyan Methodist circuit preacher named James Sillivan. Within that cabin they supported a blended family of 19 children, not to mention whatever fugitive slaves happened to be passing through.

At the Jay County Library in Portland, the county seat, I found memoirs and letters about the Sillivans accumulated when the Balbec monument was erected in 1929. One typical letter from the Sillivans' great-nephew, a retired Los Angeles newspaperman named Ralph M. Parker, was written in 1925, when he was 77:

"I remember when quite a little boy, of coming into the kitchen early one morning and finding there a Negro man and woman and several small children. Aunt Rachel was busy at work before the huge open fireplace where all the cooking was done. The man began telling Aunt something when she cut him off with: "'I don't want to know anything about thee— all I want to know about thee is, is thee and thine comfortable and has thee plenty to eat?' Early that night, while in my bed, I heard a slight commotion in the yard below. Peeping out between the logs where the chinking had dropped out, I saw a covered wagon in the front yard and presently the Negro and his family got in and the outfit was driven away."

It's hard to read such an account without feeling the hairs begin to stand up on the back of your neck. This stuff really happened. That's worth keeping in mind when you go to see Uncle Tom's Cabin.

To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
To read responses, click here.

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