Wednesday, February 23, 2011

ASF: "Blood Divided"

Blood Divided by Jeffry L. Chastang is the second world premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival this month marking the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War almost to the day of Jefferson Davis's inauguration on Goat Hill in Montgomery.

A companion-piece to Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's The Flag Maker of Market Street, and playing in rep with it, Chastang's powerfully moving drama that also emerged from the Southern Writers' Project was enthusiastically greeted with a spontaneous standing ovation at Sunday afternoon's opening performance.

Like its companion-play, Blood Divided explores relationships among people with close relationships -- either blood relatives or surrogate family -- whose political and social philosophies are at such odds that they bring about critical conflicts not easily settled.

On the eve of Alabama's secession from the Union, we are introduced to a quartet whose intertwining lives and changing relationships are central to showing Mr. Chastang's themes: patriotism and racism, family bonds and political conformity, reason and custom, youth and adulthood, Federal Union and Confederate States -- all of which speak directly to 21st Century concerns.

Dr. William Baldwin [Jack Koenig] and his son Willie [Sloan Grenz] in many ways have a typical father-son relationship -- the adolescent boy wants to declare his independence, and the father holds on to his authority. Where they differ most importantly is in their separate stands on slavery and secession. The boy's youthful assessment of slavery as "natural" goes against his father's having freed his slaves. It does not matter that Willie's prime surrogate father is a freed slave named Jim [Billy Eugene Jones], the overseer of Dr. Baldwin's plantation and with whom he has an easy comfort as equals; he does not comprehend the contradictions of this behavior with his proclaimed beliefs.

Baldwin's closest and most unlikely friend is William Yancey [Brian Wallace], whose adamant and passionate support of the Confederacy is in direct conflict with Baldwin's pro-Union sympathies. But Yancey's charisma infatuates Willie to such an extent that he too supplants Baldwin as a father-figure and influences the young man's independent yearnings.

Under Nancy Rominger's scrupulously egalitarian direction [unquestionably her best effort so far at ASF] -- no easy sides to take here, as each person and each conflict is given its due, and with completely credible performances that illustrate the complexities and ironies within each of them, the human stories underlying the socio-political conflicts rivet our attention from beginning to end.

The ensemble actors depict essentially good men, though each is flawed in some way, making them accessible to us today. Mr. Koenig's textured portrayal of Baldwin, his steadfastness in trying to understand others' beliefs & actions, and his drive to do what is right while knowing the cost, make him a father to emulate. Mr. Wallace's depiction of Yancey's arrogance and audacity to risk even his life for a cause he holds precious and his inability to compromise show laudable attributes, and his leadership ability is unquestioned. Mr. Jones shows the contradictions of a freed slave: his independence is essential, though he retains several signs of humility & subservience for his own survival; and his easy open relationship with Willie is perhaps the most comfortable relationship on the ASF stage. Willie as performed by Mr. Grenz is utterly convincing in his adolescent behavior and immature rantings, yet this is tempered in later scenes as life experiences both reaffirm some concepts and bring others into question.

The sensitive collaboration of playwright-director-actor effects audiences throughout the two-hour performance, making them reassess their own beliefs and understand how so many of the play's conflicts are still with us. -- How is it, for example, that "we all come into this world slippery and screaming" as equals, but that our cosmetic differences bring about so many conflicts? How is it that "common sense" reveals such disparate conclusions? How is it that conscientious debate between intelligent sparring-partners turns too often to violence and division? How is it that misinformation is taken as truth when it is repeated often enough? How is it that an entire race of people can be vilified in one breath, and that an individual in the group can be regarded only as "an exception" to the accepted norm without negating the general premise?

The tragic ending to Mr. Chastang's drama appears inevitable [Willie enlists in the Confederate Army & goes into battle never to return], yet it is touching. If some solace can be gained from the loss of a loved one, a person with such potential, it might be that we forsee a better future, a greater understanding of one another. -- It has been 150 years since the Civil War started, and though progress has been made, we're not there yet.