"Rastus and Hattie"

Ananias J. Dixon (from left), Darius J. Stubbs, Nicole Sumlin and Jeannine Gaskin

You are what you reap.

So says Lisa Langford’s thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining “Rastus and Hattie,” which is getting its well-earned and must-see world premiere production at Cleveland Public Theatre.

The play features Needra (Nicole Sumlin), a young geneticist whose research has found that trauma is inherited. More specifically, the fears and inferiority complex experienced by contemporary black women – along with the resultant hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and depression – have been passed down from mother to daughter, to granddaughter, ad infinitum since the time their African ancestors were enslaved and abused in this country. The core trauma, she argues, has been exacerbated by generations of kin who have lived under Jim Crow during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, experienced the social tumult of the ’60s, and lived through the crack epidemic of the ’80s.

Our playwright is also keen to note that white privilege – with its sense of superiority, ethnocentrism and entitlement – is similarly inherited and reinforced over time.

The idea for and title of this play blossomed from a photograph of a human-like robot actually developed but soon scrapped by Westinghouse in the 1930s. The robot was designed to be part of a fleet of time-saving domestic laborers, and its creators – scientists who apparently had no qualms with the link between servitude and Blackness so readily accepted at the time – gave the robot African-American features and named him Rastus.

When “Rastus and Hattie” begins, the time is now and two newly salvaged robot prototypes (Darius J. Stubbs and Jeannine Gaskin), dressed in antebellum attire, are serving cake to David (Adam Seeholzer) and Marlene (Rachel Lee Kolis), who are white, and their black friends Needra and her husband Malik (Ananias J. Dixon), who are dumbfounded. 

"You've got... a slave," says Malik. "They're black," adds Needra. "They're not even people," reassures Marlene.

The notion that trauma and past experiences are inherited is given momentum when Needra and Malik drive south to Alabama, which is the place of her new research fellowship, his childhood home and the root of their ancestral trauma. As they cross a bridge at the state line with the two robots Needra “freed” in tow and the bewildered David and Marlene in pursuit, everyone encounters an abrupt rip in the space-time continuum and is mysteriously transported to the 1870s. As they adapt to their surroundings, we get to see the origin of who and what they are. Even the robots Rastus and Hattie are the product of earlier programming and assorted pieces and parts from the trial Bessies and early model Beulahs that came before them.

The play’s sci-fi elements and Langford’s often lyrical writing create an enchanting magical realism that is perfectly complemented by T. Paul Lowry’s gorgeous location-defining projected images that travel across a stationary set piece with a conveyer belt that introduces props that add dimension to the imagery.

The profundity of the subject matter and the earnest, beautifully calibrated performances by this superb cast – which includes Andrew Narten in assorted roles in the past and present – keep everything grounded. And Anne McEvoy’s superb direction manages to weave all this and Benjamin Gantose, James Kosmatka and Kerry Patterson’s lighting, sound and costume designs, respectively, into a workable and remarkable whole to form a seamless piece of storytelling.

Earlier versions of “Rastus and Hattie” received readings, workshops and rewriting at Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas, the InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia, 16th Street Theater in Chicago and Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City before its selection for the prestigious National New Play Network’s National Showcase of New Plays in Sacramento. The play was also a 2019 finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut, and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco.

These are all places where new works are being incubated and nurtured, but it is here in Cleveland where this play is being staged. We now live in a theater town where national tours are being launched, local venues are offering regional premieres of innovative and risqué plays and, increasingly, local playwrights like Langford are getting their due in world premiere productions of their works.

Your patronage will both reward this initiative and be rewarded by it. After all, you are what you reap.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio SPJ best critic.

Disclaimer

Letters, commentaries and opinions appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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