by Hugh Hunter
Quintessence Theatre makes its contribution to Black History month with a revival of rarely performed “Rachel” (1916) by Angelina Weld Grimke, a historical milestone originally intended as a response to D. W Griffith’s movie “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) that glorified the KKK.
“Rachel” was sponsored by the nascent NAACP, and in the first program notes we read: “This is the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relative to the lamentable condition of the millions of Colored citizens in this free republic.” “Rachel” is exactly that, aspiring to lay bare the persecutorial, all-enveloping role race plays in the lives of African Americans.
The central character is Rachel (Jessica Johnson), a character in the Book of Jeremiah (“…Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted…” Jeremiah 31:15). Rachel starts out as a happy teenager but four years later weeps over the destroyed innocence of black children.
Rachel has lived through her own destruction, now sees it in the children around her. Ethel Lane (Camiel Warren-Taylor) is so jeered in school she falls into a mental state we would now call post- traumatic stress disorder. Lively little Jimmy (Donovan Louis Bazemore) is soon reduced to distraught older Jimmy (Nathan Alford-Tate), too frightened to leave his bedroom.
Director Alexandra Espinoza assembles a cast who bring sorely needed inflection to stock characters. Zuhairah McGill shines as Mrs. Mary Loving, family matriarch who struggles with painful secrets, then ages with graceful resolve. Walter DeShields plays John Strong, who reconciles himself with humor and anger to the best job he can hope for: head waiter. Jessica Johnson infuses emotion into Rachel, who transitions from fun-loving girl to despairing young woman.
Sociologically, “Rachel” is on the money. In 1916 professional advancement in the larger American world was impossible by law in the South and by practice in the North. And the suffering of black children was cruel reality, as the 1940’s “doll studies” of psychologist Kenneth Clark starkly demonstrated. But, does good sociology make good theater?
“Rachel” is long (three hours) but short on story and character discovery. It shares in the pitfalls of overtly political plays, from communist “Agitprop” shows to Bertolt Brecht’s “Alienation Effect”: It lectures about an issue but does not engage you dramatically. What will happen next, and what is a character’s hidden agenda are not questions you ask. Proclamation replaces mystery.
Of course, that is what “Rachel” is trying to do. In addition to political theater, it is also melodramatic, allegorical (consider the names — Rachel, Loving, Strong),
and a kind of lamentation. Is it relevant? Yes and no. Current social psychology studies are demonstrating a new and more complicated picture of unconscious racial bias.
Quintessence Theatre is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “Rachel” will run through Feb 23. Reservations at 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org