In 1822, a freed slave named Denmark Vesey was put to death for plotting a would-be rebellion in Charleston, S.C.; he’s been known ever since as a heroic rebel leader. In recent years, however, historians have questioned whether his conspiracy ever really existed. In the fictionalized historical drama “Denmark,” playwright Charles Smith cleverly contemplates whether there’s all that much of a difference between what people think is true and what actually forms reality. Smart but stylistically restrained, the production is lifted to occasional heroic levels by Anthony Fleming III’s perf in the title role.
Known for prior historical bio-dramas about prominent African-Americans, Smith belongs to the playwrights’ ensemble of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, which is producing this play’s premiere to inaugurate the company’s elegant new digs in the gorgeously renovated Biograph Theater, famous as the site where John Dillinger was gunned down by the FBI.
“Denmark” doesn’t deliver the visceral thrills of a gangster shoot-’em-up, nor does it try. Its narrative begins with striking clarity but moves, only partly successfully, toward strategic cloudiness. It’s a thoughtful play, but admirable more for its thematic richness than its entertainment value or emotional force.
In the form of Fleming — a handsome, composed and consistently dynamic actor who dominates the stage from start to finish — Denmark Vesey is first and foremost a dreamer. Desiring to “walk this earth as a different type of man,” and aided by a winning lottery ticket, Denmark negotiates his own freedom from his master, Captain Vesey (Raoul Johnson), but is not left with enough to buy that of his love, Beck (Velma Austin).
Setting to work as a carpenter after a life at sea (contributing to the slave trade), Denmark keeps putting off his reunion with Beck as he finds other ways to use his earnings for the greater social good, particularly building a church for the fledgling black congregation led by politically cautious Reverend Brown (A.C. Smith). He also hopes to salve his own personal demons — he’s haunted by voices — by seeking guidance from charm-crafter Omar Sewell (Kenn E. Head).
Faith in religion and charms, and even people, becomes a recurring theme. If a superstitious charm works as a placebo and cures a medical condition, does that mean it had actual power? Is the power of faith real or imagined, or does it really matter?
Smith creates a series of slippery slopes, as Denmark’s dreams get ever more ambitious. While Brown seeks to free one slave a year with the donations of the church, Denmark sees that as a pittance. Still, he accepts the money to free Beck, who — in the play’s most emotionally potent scene — declines her freedom when confronted by her master, Colonel Monroe (Joe Van Slyke). Her harrowing rejection of Denmark represents the psychological after-effect both of a life in captivity and of a hope too-long nurtured and then deferred.
Thereafter, Denmark’s plans turn dark, and Fleming depicts a man fueled with rising anger. He attempts to foment a bloody rebellion, but one that never has more than a few collaborators, if that, aboard.
No matter, though, that the reality may have been tiny, even nonexistent. The paranoia of the white owners, and the confessions they force with torture, escalate the scale of the imagined rebellion to 500, then 1,000 and finally a mythic 9,000 strong.
The very idea of such a potential wave of violence causes a changed reality of its own. The Charleston rebellion may never have existed except in the mind, according to Smith’s play, but it had a very real impact for many.
It manages to make that intriguing point, but there are some significant flaws in this work. The entire play is told in flashback and is supposed to be set, according to the program, in Denmark’s “feverish mind,” which finds strangely stagnant, unimaginative form in designer Mary Griswold’s set, a perspective background of stone archways. But for extended stretches, this is a play that gets caught in an unhappy stylistic middle, moored to realism while clearly pointing to something more.
Dennis Zacek’s crisp direction knows exactly what to do with the straightforward scenes early on, but neither he nor the always entertaining Fleming seems quite as comfortable as the play begins to spin into something more symbolic.