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BWW Review: TORN at AmaZing Theatre Company

John Becker's "stage flick" is the latest offering from AmaZing Theatre Company

BWW Review: TORN at AmaZing Theatre Company
Scott Abernethy as Roosevelt and Gerrad Taylor as Washington in the oval office, unwittingly shocking the nation.

One of the best parts of historical plays is getting to see the human elements of major events as they unfold. To watch the decisions as they're made, the concerns, tolls, and hopes that play into creating the big moments we know and use to mark our evolution as a society.

John Becker's new play, Torn, produced by AmaZing Theatre Company, looks to give those insights into President Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, and the dinner that served as the controversial start to their friendship. The play gives audiences the opportunity to better understand the significance of Roosevelt's well-meaning but impulsive decision to invite the first Black man to dine at the White House, Washington's own hopes and concerns about Roosevelt's decisions and understanding of the plight of Black Americans, and the volatile, complicated nation they faced 30 years after the Civil War.

Becker's play shows keen insight into the internal struggles and external pressures both men face. Washington regularly butts heads with his contemporary, W.E.B. Du Boise, who felt that Washington didn't go far enough to advance the rights and status of Black Americans. Washington's wife, Margaret, serves as both a confidant and an advocate, as well as peacemaker between the two men's perspectives. The conversations between Roosevelt and Washington show the limits of both Roosevelt's knowledge and Washington's influence. Roosevelt discusses his thought processes with Elihu Root, who served as McKinley and Roosevelt's Secretary of War in 1901; Root provides gentle pushback to Roosevelt by reminding him of public opinions and reactions, but more in a cautionary than hostile capacity. That hostile pushback comes from South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman, known as "Pitchfork Ben" for his inflammatory - and often racist - language.

BWW Review: TORN at AmaZing Theatre Company
Nick Duckworth as Elihu Root, Scott Abernethy as Teddy Roosevelt, and Vince Eisenson as Senator Ben Tillman

It's also, unfortunately, in Tillman that some of the magic of historical fiction fades. While many of the discussions in Torn are based in historical texts, Tillman's fiery speeches have a more modern root, often quoting former President Trump and his tweets. While the parallels are certainly there, it felt a little heavy-handed, and fell into what I can't help but worry has become a cultural shorthand. While Ben Tillman expressed white supremacist ideologies, he was a horrific figure in his own right, and diminishing his evil to a caricature of our own time feels like it undermines this. It's also jarring, given how heavily the rest of the show relies on the other characters' own words, to see this sole character rely on the words of others. While the point and comparison are valid, it feels diminished rather than bolstered with this choice.

On the production side, AmaZing presents what Becker calls a "stage flick," a merging of play and film elements. Virtual backgrounds are utilized in lieu of a set, and sound effects are used to create audience cheers and boos during speeches, as well as an echo effect on the orators. The clever usage of the advantages of the video format certainly enhances the show, though care is also paid to the select props and the actors' historically accurate costumes.

BWW Review: TORN at AmaZing Theatre Company
Muhammad Okedeyi as Dubois, Gerrad Taylor as Washington, and Debora Crabbe as Margaret Washington

However, the strong production elements seem to come at a cost - Becker, who also directs, and his cast seem to be a bit disoriented with the two-camera set-up. The scenes felt stiff and awkward, and it often felt that the actors weren't certain whether to address each other, the main camera, or angle for the side camera. This discomfort translated to their performances, making the characters seem stilted and less certain, which is particularly disorienting with known historical figures. These are people who are known for their convictions, and the lack of such conviction in their portrayal pulls the viewer out of the show. It was hard to fully enjoy the production when it felt like the actors themselves weren't enjoying it.

Overall, Torn is a well-researched, cleverly produced production with an interesting story at its heart. The show may not live up to the theatre company's name, but it's an enjoyable enough production with a worthwhile tale to tell.

Performances of Torn can be viewed on Saturdays and Sundays through the end of February. Tickets are available on the AmaZing Theatre Company's website for $12 per household, and give patrons access to the performance at their leisure for the selected date.

Photos courtesy of AmaZing Theatre Company.

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