When speculation trumps slavery

Arden Theatre Company Presents Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy, adapted by Ben Power

4 minute read
Production shot of the three stars, standing in a row wearing 19th-century suits. Green letters behind read Lehman Brothers
From left: Akeem Davis, Charlie DelMarcelle, and Scott Greer in the Arden’s ‘Lehman Trilogy.’ (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)

As a theater critic, I can’t possibly say that the Arden’s production of The Lehman Trilogy (already extended through Sunday, April 14) is bad. The problem is that the play itself is reprehensible as a work of historical fiction, let alone actual history. (As Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera asks, “What is the burgling of a bank to the founding of a bank?”)

Italian writer Stefano Massini’s novel (translated into English by Richard Dixon and adapted for the stage by Ben Power as a mix of spoken narration and dialogue) likely works better in the literary medium. But here, the three-actor ensemble playing multiple parts, especially the charismatic and versatile Akeem Davis, are convincing and totally committed to their performances. This is an accomplished show from director Terrence J. Nolen, credited as co-conceiver alongside scenic and video designer Jorge Cousineau. Associate director Jonathan Silver says it took more than 200 hours of rehearsal, and I believe it. The syncopation of the narrative with Cousineau’s videos and scenery is a feat of technical craft and virtuoso pacing.

Coming from nothing?

But the issue here isn’t the production. Over and over, the characters—German Jewish immigrants who worked hard to become powerful New York capitalists—claim that they “came from nothing.” Gosh, I didn’t know “hard work” meant making boatloads of money from slave-plantation cotton, then leaving for New York once the South burned. This really changes things!

In fairness, the Arden mentions the issue: the playbill points to a reprint of Sarah Churchill’s 2019 New York Times Review of Books article, “The Lehman Trilogy and Wall Street’s Debt to Slavery,” on its website, and Silver notes that the Lehman brothers’ dealings in slavery are “not wholly reflected in the play.” That is generous at best: slavery and the end of the slave trade are mentioned only a few times in the play.

Instead, Massini cheerfully depicts how the original Lehman brothers—Meyer (Davis), Emanuel (Charlie DelMarcelle), and Henry (Scott Greer)—first sold clothes in their storefront in 1850s Alabama, then started selling raw cotton. They pitch themselves as “middlemen” between the Southern plantations and Northern businesses, who probably do not want to think about how they got that cotton or who picked it. In New York, where the Lehmans eventually moved, Emanuel cheerfully tells his future wife that he’s rich, thanks to his business with 24 plantations.

The reality of slavery

In his 1853 memoir Twelve Years A Slave, Solomon Northup, a free Black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, goes into extensive, procedural detail regarding the arduous work of cotton production on a Southern plantation, where enslaved people picked a total of 200 pounds a day. They were not paid for their work. Evidently, the Lehman brothers were. They also helped traffic enslaved people and were enslavers themselves, something the play never portrays, presumably because that would complicate (or destroy) our warm image of the bankers as flawed but human capitalists.

There were many people in the 18th century who believed owning other human beings was wrong. There were many people in the 19th century who believed owning other human beings was wrong. There were 19th-century German immigrants, in fact, who came to America and were disgusted by the cruelty of slavery and did not make money off the unpaid labor of human beings forced to pick 200 pounds of cotton a day. The Lehman brothers didn’t “come from nothing,” and they didn’t work hard. Their original money came from enslavers, and then they eventually learned how to gamble and pump money into other people’s ideas.

Speculation, not slavery?

What’s ghastly and almost bleakly hilarious is that The Lehman Trilogy somehow does not see 19th-century cotton profiteering as where the Lehman brothers' business went wrong. Slavery is called a “crime,” sure, but it’s pretty easily disregarded by the end of the first act, and a real-life woman named Martha, whom the Lehman brothers enslaved, does not exist in this portrayal. What Massini perceives as the “tragedy” of the family—and part of the downfall of America as an immigrant’s dream—is in becoming Wall Street bankers and speculators.

The business did famously collapse, of course, thanks to the 2008 recession. But the play’s arc—with a moral rise and fall positing that the original brothers embody a “can-do” American spirit that helped create a great country through raw capitalist enterprise—is ridiculous. As I actually have to live in the US (unlike Massini), I can tell you that raw capitalist enterprise is not great for running a whole society. And it’s also not as if the country ever moved on from slavery: instead, the economy shifted its sources of unpaid or exploitative labor to mass incarceration and countries overseas, backed, of course, by banks like Goldman Sachs and Lehman.

This is a strong theatrical production, but I can’t, in good conscience, recommend The Lehman Trilogy. This play, like Hamilton, is primarily based on soothing old lies about how America was founded, about our principles, and about the American Dream. In reality, these flourishing untruths feed us into a grinder that chews us up and spits us out if we can’t make enough money.

What, When, Where

The Lehman Trilogy. Adapted by Ben Power from the novel by Stefano Massini, directed by Terrence J. Nolen. Through April 14, 2024, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N 2nd Street. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.


Starting Wednesday, March 20, 2024, patrons can reserve wearable, customizable Smart Caption Glasses for performances of The Lehman Trilogy. There will be open-caption and audio-described performances on Friday, March 29, at 7pm and Saturday, March 30, at 1pm.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation