Philly Fringe 2017: Iron Age Theatre’s ‘To My Unborn Child: A Love Letter from Fred Hampton’

Fred Hampton speaks again

It’s true that not enough people know the fraught, tragic story of the Black Panther Party (BPP) or the heights and horrors surrounding the short life and violent death of brilliant young activist Fred Hampton. Iron Age Theatre’s world premiere of Richard Bradford’s one-man performance To My Unborn Child: A Love Letter from Fred Hampton attempts to fill that gap and familiarize audiences with Hampton’s revolutionary style.

(Photo by Josiah Blizzard.)

Great men cast great shadows

For this effort, Bradford’s under a formidable shadow. Roger Guenveur Smith’s A Huey P. Newton Story covers some of the same territory, but with such narrative and performative skill that the memory of Smith, writhing in slow motion as Newton feels the agitation of crack cocaine coursing through his bloodstream, still gives me the chills. I saw it twice here in Philadelphia, and Spike Lee admired it so much he filmed the performance for PBS.

I say this not to compare the two — though that’s inevitable, and I suppose Bradford and director John Doyle know it — but to highlight that these men were larger than life and a solo show about them must, first and foremost, show exactly why the entire U.S. government so feared their influence.

In videos, Hampton’s mind works so fast his mouth can hardly keep up. He tosses out revolutionary slogans with ease, such as “You don’t fight capitalism with black capitalism, you fight capitalism with socialism,” which he delivered during an unscripted press conference and immediately followed rat-a-tat-tat with more highly quotable Marxist ideas.

A need for clarity

Bradford includes many of these greatest hits in his script, but they’re often dramatized in imagined conversations (the above quote appears during a conflict between Hampton and a local drug dealer who resists joining his “Rainbow Coalition”) with Bradford playing all the roles. Unfortunately, his characterizations aren’t distinct enough, and keeping track of the speaker often gets confusing.

The show’s structure also needs some clarity. It starts as Hampton, presumably dead (he rises from a bed covered with blood-soaked, bullet-riddled sheets), tells his son about his life. Hampton was killed by police in 1969 at age 21, in a hail of bullets as he slept next to his eight-months-pregnant fiancée. But we never get the sense that his life was lived on fast-forward, that he only had a few compressed years — from his childhood friendship with Emmett Till to high-school activism to a Marxist conversion and wide-ranging national impact — in which to accomplish all that he did.

Perspectives keep shifting and the paternal thread gets lost. Perhaps the inclusion of another actor would keep the narrative moving, allow Bradford to focus on portraying Hampton and help Hampton illustrate for his unborn son, Fred Hampton Jr., why it’s so important for him to continue his father’s work. After all, as Bradford’s script shows again and again, black Americans have been yelling, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” in one form or another for decades. (At least.) And even more important, at least to Hampton, the gap between rich and poor of all colors continues to widen.

There’s plenty of material in here that, with a few edits and adjustments, could do the man some much-needed, long-delayed justice. Certainly, Iron Age’s copious program notes help. But you shouldn’t have to read pages of dramaturgy to understand a play’s subject. As premiered and performed, Bradford must dig deeper if he wants to show the force Hampton was, and he must find a way to build the tension between Hampton’s awareness of his borrowed time on Earth and the government hellbent on silencing him.

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