Thomas Gibbons’ plays push hot buttons. Jumping off from actual events, they tackle issues rarely brought up in private discourse, let alone onstage. “A House With No Walls,” in its West Coast premiere from the Robey Theater Company, addresses the paradox of African-American conservatism, the motives of self-appointed community leaders and slavery’s proper legacy in the modern era; if any audience member is left unprovoked, it’s not for Gibbons’ lack of trying. Neither play nor production has quite come together yet, but it’d be tough to find a better spur for post-show arguments on the drive home.
Nexus of the action is the site of Philadelphia’s old Executive Mansion at Sixth and Market streets. There lived the Father of His Country, his family and — lest we forget — his nine slaves, whose billeting was (and is) at the center of a controversy stemming from constructing the adjacent Liberty Bell Center commemorative hall.
Did George Washington, in fact, erect a small square slave quarters behind the mansion? If so, is that land therefore hallowed ground, deserving of its own memorial to a people’s lack of liberty? Gibbons’ fictional protagonists occupy opposite sides of the real-life battle, their viewpoints reflecting diverse perspectives on black America then and now.
Cadence Lane (a stylish though strident Kellie Roberts) is a black academic of conservative bent who reads in the life of Oney Judge, one of Washington’s nine, the notion of achieving true liberty by moving away from victimhood into self-actualization. Activist Salif Camara (a fiery Hugh Dane) is equally committed to memorializing Washington’s little-known shame as a necessary component for transforming a race’s bitter past into a more hopeful future.
While Gibbons assigns more personal motives to each — Lane has D.C. ambitions, and Dane angles for reparations and more work for minority contractors — you don’t have to dwell on them, or pinpoint their real-life counterparts, to find in the dialectic a powerful distillation of today’s racial divide. (Lane dubs it “the Race Circus,” a sideshow guilty white Americans pay to exit in the form of pro forma social programs, and gets pelted with Oreos on campus for her pains.)
The debate is expanded not just by well-meaning historian and Cadence’s ex Allen (Darin Dahms) and the center’s smoothie bureaucratic chief (Jonathan Palmer), but also by simultaneous flashbacks to the lives of Oney (Toyin Moses), her brother (Maurice McRae) and the Quaker abolitionist (Dahms again) seeking to make the president’s escaped slaves a symbol that’ll ring like — well, like a bell.
This is heady stuff teeming with intellectual passion, and Gibbons credits his audience with enough patience to hang in there through a complicated structure and skein of counterarguments. Truth be told, the debate catches fire only in the second act, its spark a quibble over language in a draft report whose import we have to struggle to accept, as we do the contrivance of the Allen/Cadence romance.
In the same way, Oney’s story shifts from cliche and stiffness into high gear only at the act break, when Washington announces she’s to be sold, not freed, at presidency’s end. Before and after that crisis, Gibbons’ attempted mystical synthesis of past and present hasn’t been coherently achieved.
Helmer Ben Guillory moves the characters around Victoria Bellocq’s Erector-set set with sureness, and Jeremy Pivnick brilliantly establishes a “magic square” of light — in the dimensions and on the spot of the alleged slave quarters — serving as a constant, touching reminder of the issues at stake. Still, the pacing is erratic, and much of the cast was having line trouble at the perf seen, a big drawback for a play hinging on plangent expression.
Gibbons has yet to weave his ideas, characters and incidents into the satisfying whole of his previous “Bee-luther-hatchee” (on the ownership of slave narratives) and “Permanent Collection” (on the ownership of artistic artifacts). But while and even whether he does, “A House With No Walls” inspires thought and even anger in a way most politically engaged scribes only dream of.