Uncle Tom: Deconstructed

Tue 9th – Fri 12th August 2011

reviews

Joe Nicholson

at 18:18 on 10th Aug 2011

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I was not sure what to expect from The Conciliation Project’s Uncle Tom Deconstructed, having never read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel. However, the audience was confronted with a powerful and engaging piece which did well to raise questions about racism and our notions of what race means today in original ways.

The ten members of the acting ensemble demonstrated excellent ability onstage, acting as a black and white minstrel show, with much credit due for their fantastic choreography and brilliant vocals. Many of the songs chosen were culturally and historically charged, which added to the resonance of the play, whilst the sinister appearance of the minstrels lent emphasis to the undercurrents of violence, underlining the power of the issues with which the performance dealt. This was perhaps taken too far by the questionable decision to dress the middle-aged keyboardist as a KKK member, but overall the production was believable, the scenes of racial hatred and slavery acted out potent.

The production was innovative in many of the scenes of racism: a particularly thought-provoking if shocking episode was the slave market, which involved the represented sexual humiliation of a female black minstrel. This was followed by the five slaves for sale showing their shackles as if modeling jewelry for a shopping channel, which really impressed. Such anachronisms, often self announced, did well to link the context of Beecher Stowe’s text to contemporary perceptions of race in the U.S.A.: other examples included the links between the commodification of the body in college football trials and the differences between perceptions of church. The sarcastic treatment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the revelation of the author as constrained within assumptions of the inherent benevolence of white America was incredibly absorbing. The cast worked together seamlessly to depict instances of cruelty and bigotry from the setting of Beecher Stowe’s text with many aspects of modern American culture.

The play came to a moving close which left the audience reeling after truly excellent performances from the entire cast. There was, additionally, a plenary session of sorts announced at the close of the play, to discuss the reactions and perceptions of the audience, which was at once uncomfortable and ineffectual. Nevertheless The Conciliation Project’s production was professional and striking, and dealt with difficult issues very well.

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May Anderson

at 23:09 on 11th Aug 2011

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When given the choice between light entertainment and an hour of ‘social justice theatre’, I think most of us would tend to opt for the former. Spending an hour having an ‘issue’ forced down your throat is usually not preferable to listening to a couple of nice song and dance numbers interspersed with witty dialogue. In 'uncle tom: deconstructed' the Conciliation Project have actually managed to bring together these two types of theatre which I had assumed were mutually exclusive together and with devastating effect.

A re-examination of the way in which Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel has affected the representation of African-Americans in the media the play re-writes the notion of Stowe as kindly, Christian liberal whose novel was an essential tool in the abolitionist cause. A moving and genuinely emotionally exhausting theatrical experience, ‘uncle tom: deconstructed’ tested my intelligence and my preconceptions of ‘issue’ theatre.

Appropriating the minstrel show form, itself the source of many misconceptions about black culture, the cast burlesque the stereotypes that have dogged conceptions of African-Americans in the media. The mélange of styles and forms that the cast deploy – from hip hop to slave songs – are integral part of the minstrel’s art and this allows the cast to explore the parallels between ‘Uncle Tomitudes’ of the past and the stereotypes of contemporary culture. The line they draw between Beecher’s devious, perpetually naughty Topsy and the character Gary Coleman played in ‘Different Strokes’ strikes a particularly uneasy chord.

What makes ‘uncle tom: deconstructed’ so impressive is the sheer unrelenting stamina of the performers. In the intimate space of venue 45 their strong, resonant voices are inescapably poignant. At times, and no wonder given the subject matter, ‘uncle tom’ is a very angry play and each song that they deliver bubbles with hatred. Behind the façade of the perpetual painted on grin of the entertaining minstrel these performers are angry at a social injustice that continues to this day and the power of this play is directly tied to the extreme strength of these performers’ convictions.

One heavy-handed note in the production, and I am slightly appalled to admit unintentionally funny moment, occurs at the play’s beginning when a rather prim-looking middle-aged women in a Ku Klux Klan white gown sits down at a keyboard and begins to accompany the cast. Whilst her arrival might be meant to remind the audience that the minstrel show was just another instrument of affirming white supremacy in its crude depiction of simplistic, all-singing, all-dancing blacks it is spoiled by her clumsy need to hoick up her conical hood over her eyes in order to be able to see the keys. The play ends with a dialogue between audience and actors and i feel this aspect of the action is perhaps lost in translation with a British audience. I couldn’t help feeling that a stiff upper lip probably prevented the British audience members from sharing their feelings about the play – the voices that did speak where exclusively American and relatively effusive.

Yet if you’ve even the slightest interest in American race relations I would strongly recommend you see this play. The Conciliation Project use theatre as an instrument to further their very worthy and compelling cause but don't in the process forget what makes good theatre. A triumphant performance, this company deserve their every success.

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