The world of difference that can separate a compelling story from a good play has rarely been illustrated more vividly than in A Human Being, of a Sort. In 1906, Ota Benga, a young Congolese pygmy man, was literally put on exhibit in the Bronx Zoo. This is a matter of fact, not fiction, and of course heartbreaking and jaw-dropping. In a weekend when by coincidence I saw three plays that dealt with racism against people of color, A Human Being was both the most harrowing narrative, and the least satisfying theater.
But although playwright Jonathan Payne certainly knows his subject, and has some potentially powerful dramatic ideas, A Human Being—as seen in its world-premiere production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival—looks all too much like an exhibit itself: the details are here, but the play, despite the best efforts of its fine cast, director, and designers, feels theatrically inert.
Payne largely limits his story to the time Ota Benga (played by Antonio Michael Woodard) spent in the zoo, though there is a brief postlude where we see him with anthropologist Samuel Phillips Verner (Matthew Saldivar) , who “purchased” him and brought him to America. In addition to these incidents, all based on history, Payne also supplies a fictional character, called “Smokey” (André Braugher), also a black man on a kind of work release program from a Tennessee labor farm, who is charged with caring for (well, mostly guarding) Benga.
Together, the two men have strikingly symmetrical roles, and one could hardly ask more from the performers. Braugher is one of America’s finest actors, and his every moment on stage is nuanced and lit from within. Woodard has fewer words to work with, but his extraordinary physicality and powerful charisma lend some welcome dimension.
Whitney White directs skillfully, and designers Lawrence E. Moten III (scenery), Tilly Grimes (costumes), and Amith Chandrashaker (lighting) provide a handsome setting.
And yet, for all of its virtues, I couldn’t connect to A Human Being.
Perhaps distance is exactly what Payne is after. Is this his own brand of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt? That would explain a trio of clerics (Sullivan Jones, Keith Randolph Smith, Jeorge Bennett Watson) who travel en masse, and appear to represent the limitations of piety, rather than fully fleshed-out characters. Or the awful head honcho at the zoo, William Temple Hornaday, played by Frank Wood with maddening befuddlement.
If so, I think the distancing style backfires, maybe because the story is so grotesque that we feel the need for a play that meets it at that level.
I sense that an audience wants more fire and outrage in A Human Being, a piece so theatrically in-your-face as to grab us by the guts. I applaud Payne’s intellectual rigor and stately remove—but it’s not what I want.
There are times when only outrage will do, and for all its good intentions and careful craft, A Human Being robs us of that opportunity.
A Human Being, of a Sort plays through July 7 th. For more information, visit the Williamstown Theatre Festival website.
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