Stowe It 

I Ain't Yo' Uncle reshuffles the race cards.

IAin't Yo' Uncle is a moderately effective political burlesque that puts a comically liberalized vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe on trial for crimes against complexity. Insulting stereotypes in her book Uncle Tom's Cabin -- a landmark work of abolitionist fiction and a catalyst for the Civil War -- are used as evidence against her as she is tried by a panel of her most famous characters, including Uncle Tom, George Shelby, and the unforgettable "Topsy Turvy." Having acquired life and meaning independent of Stowe's novel, the characters decide to retell her famous story in an overtly theatrical manner, focusing on everything the writer "left out."

Considering that even honest Abe Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, still believed in the superiority of the white race, criticisms of this kind are perhaps a little too easy, and success or failure of Robert Alexander's ambitiously stylized play hinges less on its specific points and more on the illusion and artifice required to make and sustain them. I Ain't Yo' Uncle is, at its core, a thumbnail sketch for a clown show, and it absolutely requires a company of trained actors who know their way around all the grotesque stock characters born of minstrelsy and melodrama.

Although the Hattiloo Theatre's current production boasts some truly inspired moments, the show has been sped up, stripped down, and sanitized for mass consumption. And in spite of committed performances by veteran actors like Jamie Mann and promising newcomers like Charlie Giggers, it never fully captures either the rebellious or the ridiculous sides of a confusing and contradictory play.

In this all-black production, white characters and characters passing for white are outfitted with large rubber animal noses which immediately call to mind the casually racist images found in early cartoons by Warner Bros. and Walt Disney. This could have been a bold and effective choice, but the cast is never able to develop the play's more cartoonish elements into a cohesive style. As a result, we're only allowed to fully explore the tangible relationship between Ain't Yo' Uncle and Merry Melodies when the cast is called to tap out organic beats for "Topsy Turvy" to rap over.

Mann's Uncle Tom has a critical eye and a morbidly subversive edge that belies his otherwise submissive image. He is a willing Christ figure with no use for Christianity, a religion that normalizes suffering. Mann also imbues his character with startling self-awareness, and an easy, stomach-turning confession that his murder will "stay in your face" may be this production's most revolutionary moment. Mann's Tom is contrasted with the more incendiary figure of George Shelby (Giggers), who has been recast as a gun-toting revolutionary destined to die at the end of a hangman's rope. Neither, it would seem, are effective saviors for the fatherless and motherless children of the diaspora as represented by the fiercely intelligent but ultimately rudderless character of "Topsy Turvy" who, in the capable hands of Adrienne Houston, sounds less like a product of the Old South and more like a refugee from the more hopeless quarters of modern Memphis, where getting by is often more important than getting over.

On Saturday night, before the show began, Hattiloo's executive director, Ekundayo Bandele, welcomed his audience and issued a gentle warning. "You're going to hear the word 'nigger' a lot," he said. And then he repeated the word a few more times so everybody could "get comfortable with it." Although Bandele's intentions were at least as honorable as Stowe's, from a purely semiotic perspective, this probably wasn't the best way to begin a highly confrontational play about how easily language can tyrannize the user. "Nigger" isn't a word we're supposed to be comfortable with, and Bandele's earnest apology nearly undermined every ounce of his stridently unapologetic play's satire.

Since Bandele is currently working as theater manager, director, set designer, and carpenter, it's easy to understand why he might be stretched a little thin and why a show as complicated as I Ain't Yo' Uncle might hit the stage full of good ideas but a little undercooked. Still, it comes highly recommended to students of experimental theater as well as to theatergoers who enjoy the dark comedy and revisionist spirit of plays like The Trial of One Short Sighted Black Woman and Stonewall Jackson's House.

Through March 18th


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