How many of you would go see a reverse version of the play Uncle Tom’s Cabin with white slaves instead of black???
When was the last time you saw Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a theater? The answer is probably never. As far as I can tell, a theatrical version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s controversial novel hasn’t been performed in the Philadelphia area for many decades, and that also appears to be true for the rest of the country, with the exception of a couple of attempts in New York City over the years. But one Philadelphia theater company says that it’s time to bring the story back to the stage, but with a twist.
EgoPo Classic Theater, a company that describes itself as “edgy, innovative, and inspiring,” is set to debut Uncle Tom in May at Delancey Place’s Plays & Players Theater. Uncle Tom was quickly transformed into a theatrical work after the novel’s 1852 publication. And although the book was immensely popular (its sales in the 1800s were only surpassed by those of the Bible), the various theatrical versions were even more so.
Because copyright laws were not what they are today, the scripts strayed freely from the original text, and the show eventually became a centerpiece of minstrel performances, complete with blackface and the most exaggerated racial stereotypes possible. Plus, the book itself wound up on some “banned book” lists, and the NAACP objected to its language and characterizations. No wonder the progressive theater world sought to distance itself in later years.
For the May production, EgoPo artistic director Lane Savadove and Glenn Odom, a literary studies professor at Rowan University, are creating a new script. “We’re doing a realistic, naturalistic version that will be incredibly respectful of the novel,” promises Savadove. “We’re not writing anything. We’re using the book word-for-word, cutting it just so that it works in a theatrical format. I really want the novel to speak for itself on the stage. This is not going to be some post-modern version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
I asked him why it was important to do Uncle Tom now, why he wants to pick it up after all these years.
“The play got tagged as racist not because of the book but because of the minstrel shows,” he explains. “The book was written as an anti-racist piece, and in the last 10 years, the top African American scholars like Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West have gone back to reclaim it as an important part of racial history. And so, we wanted to go back now that it’s seen in this new light and create a new theater version.” Further complicating the matter is Savadove’s decision to swap races in the casting process. In other words, white actors will play slaves while black actors will play their owners.
I talked to one white actor who plans to audition for the show, even though his concerns are “numerous.” The actor, who asked to remain anonymous, points out that many of the stereotypes commonly associated with black culture can be traced back to Uncle Tom, from the “Aunt Jemima” figure to the hyper-educated, very proper black man.
“Those stereotypes were built off of white characterizations of blacks,” he says. “I don’t know how having white actors playing black characters introduces anything new to this story. I sincerely hope that there is an artistic objective beyond being edgy for the sake of being edgy.”