BWW Review: A HUMAN BEING, OF A SORT at Williamstown Theatre Festival Examines the Complex Notion of Freedom
The first production on the Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival this season is the World Premiere of A HUMAN BEING, OF A SORT. Set in 1906, at the Bronx Zoological Park, an African American convict named "Smokey" is charged with tending the zoo's most sensational exhibit: Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy. As the public's fascination intensifies and protestors call for Ota's release, Smokey must grapple with the fact that his own freedom depends on another black man's captivity. Based on a true story, Jonathan Payne's world premiere play, directed by Whitney White, exposes the complexity of power and compliance in a world where all lives do not seem to matter equally.
The drama unfolds though a series of conversations. The cast is led by Andre Brauer in the role of Smokey, a southern convict "leased" to the zoo in order to
finish out his sentence. Brauer's performance is both charming and disarming. He presents a picture of a folksy fellow who wants to do the right thing for Ota Benga, whose care he is entrusted with but is also consistently torn by the need to focus on what's-in-it-for-me. Brauer's impressive performance is matched by Antonio Michael Woodard as Ota Benga. Woodard convincingly transforms into a seemingly lower life-form or creature providing others with what they need, while allowing himself to slyly achieve personal gains. The thematic conflict permeates throughout.
Frank Wood's plays William Temple Hornaday, Director of the zoo who once denounced treating people as less equal yet seems to enjoy manipulating others and the spoils of doing so. It is carried through by Sullivan Jones, Keith Randolph Smith, and Jeorge Bennett Watson as a trio of outraged black clergymen who claim to know what is best for Ota Benga while espousing that others involved "know not what they do". All the while suggesting that Benga, who Hornaday is careful to point out is a "guest - not a prisoner", a "subject" who is there of his own free will, "couldn't possibly be complicit in all of this" and "couldn't possibly understand money".
The cast is rounded out by Matthew Salidvar as Samuel Phillips Verner the individual responsible for Ota Benga having been brought from Africa to America.
The set, well designed by Lawrence E. Moten III, includes mounted animal heads lining the walls of Hornaday's office serving to make us ponder the true motivations of the man occupying the space.
White provides context and insight into the vision and drive behind the thought-provoking piece. "We have no idea what Ota Benga actually said, or what he actually thought, because we have none of his actual language. Jonathan boldly and bravely dreams into the possibility of this man's point of view. For me, as a director, that's the ideal play to work on-a play that's rooted in reality and research and human experience, but also gives birth to the possibility of things we'll never know. Jonathan gives voice and dramatic action to people and to circumstances that we'll never know, and it's very, very exciting."
A HUMAN BEING, OF A SORT represents an examination of what may lie beneath the surface. It suggests we look more closely at a reality complicated by context. It presents many of the paradoxes seemingly present in human interaction. It is a period piece but also quite timely and relevant. We find ourselves questioning the constructs of control, freedom, power, faith, and the notion of perception versus reality. Is it possible to know what lies in the hearts and minds of men or any other creature? Can we ever truly know, why the caged bird sings?
A HUMAN BEING, OF A SORT continues through July 7th on the Nikos stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamston, MA.