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Quintessence Theatre Group, located in Philly’s Mt. Airy neighborhood, has consistently and productively grappled with its identity as a “classical theatre company” while showcasing traditionally marginalized voices. The company has done phenomenal work excavating rarely produced gems like Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel and Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West. This season, Quintessence is bringing the words of poet Phillis Wheatley to life in a world-premiere biographical play by Paul Oakley Stovall and Marilyn Campbell-Lowe, directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce of Chicago's New Classics Collective.
This production marks new territory for Quintessence as they host a world-premiere production and launch a collaboration with the New Classics Collective. The play explores the remarkable history of Wheatley, who became the most famous woman of African descent in the world after her book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in London in 1773. The company works hard to bring this literary figure to life, making her flesh and blood, beyond the page.
The play begins as an unnamed grad student (Kira Player) attempts to write an essay on Wheatley. She wants to know the real Wheatley (played skillfully by Asia Rogers). How do we render a character left invisible by history? How do we identify with an icon that historically resists interpretation? These are questions I was hungry for this work to answer.
What follows is a tonally inconsistent summary of what is known about Wheatley’s life. We meet her enslavers, the Wheatleys (played by Carolyn Nelson, Joshua Kachnycz, and David Mitchum Brown), who wrestle with their own affection toward her and their complicity in racialized chattel slavery. These dynamics are complicated, and the playwrights do not attempt to sidestep the apparent contradictions. The play tends to leave the audience in the moral quicksand without much of a life raft.
This same ambivalence is felt in the scene in which Wheatley meets enslaver and generalissimo George Washington (Bill Zielinski). The play wants to remind us that Washington enslaved hundreds of people, but also works to render him a sympathetic character. There is a particularly striking moment where he stands up and delivers Wheatley water. Perhaps the play is saying that even the most racist figures have the capacity for mundane politeness in the face of shared humanity?
The play continues to languish in its final 15 minutes, when it switches narrative modes and we see the last years of Wheatley’s life through the eyes of her husband, John Peters (Phillip Brown). Brown is captivating in this and other ensemble roles here, but this shift distances the audience from Wheatley’s later years. The play ends with an image we have encountered throughout the play’s text. For many in the audience, it seemed to lend an emotional heft to the finale; I found the final moments manipulative and antithetical to the premise of the work.
Wheatley’s own words
The minimal set design by Brian Sidney Bembrige is accented by lovely lights from David Sexton and projections by Brittany Bland. We see a simple platform raised in the center of the theater. The waiting actors sit around it on benches. Throughout the piece, we feel keenly aware of the performative nature of Wheatley’s existence, her constant need to perform in order to been seen as legible.
The play’s saving grace, etched throughout, is Wheatley’s own words, delivered beautifully by Rogers. In these moments, we hear firsthand Wheatley’s genius, and are left feeling that she deserved better.
What, When, Where
Written by Phillis. By Paul Oakley Stovall and Marilyn Campbell-Lowe, directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce. $20-$59. Through June 4, 2023, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
The Sedgwick is a wheelchair-accessible theater, and different seating accommodations may be made at the time of purchase.
Masks are encouraged, but not required.
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