Theater: John Brown’s Raid – You Are There. What Now?

Frederick Douglass and John Brown's intense debate before the doomed assault.

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An explosion shakes the cast of The Raid

TV viewers who grew up in the 1950s and 60s may remember Walter Cronkite’s series, “You Are There.” These re-enactments of famous historic episodes had modern-day reporters on the scene to bring immediacy, drama, and instant analysis. Try to imagine such a re-enactment of John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, but with the benefit of inventive staging, an outstanding cast, and action unfolding just steps from your seat.

Under the direction of Colin Hovde, Theater Alliance’s production of “The Raid” has all this and more, powerfully conjuring the intense deliberations of John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and their followers in the weeks before Brown’s doomed assault, which aimed to trigger an armed slave rebellion nationwide. The performance that unfolds commands rapt attention and inspires its audience to consider: In a time of protest, what are YOU willing to fight for?

Dylan J. Fleming as Emperor in The Raid

It all begins in 1859 at a quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where Brown and Douglass meet under cover of darkness to debate their choice: Attempt to incite a slave uprising now or hope for the election of Abraham Lincoln to create a national groundswell of abolitionist fervor. As Brown, Nicklas Aliff conveys the urgency of an aging man convinced that God has called him to end the scourge of slavery, while Marquis D. Gibson is the temperate Frederick Douglass, demonstrating the dignity and restraint of a leader and former slave who has learned, the hard way, how to bide his time.

Josh Adams plays Brown’s secretary, Henry Kagi, embodying the jittery nerves of followers who may be willing to plot treason but are wary of potential traitors in their midst. The calmly commanding Dylan J. Fleming plays Emperor, Douglass’ loyal friend, as composed as Kagi is anxious as he considers casting his lot with Brown.

The play illuminates the depth of their dilemma in chilling flashbacks of furious confrontations over slavery. Moira Todd depicts Mahala Doyle, a mother desperately pleading for the life of her teenaged son during Brown’s raid of cabins owned by pro-slavery activists in “Bleeding Kansas,” a proposed new state where the slavery debate reached a fever pitch. And Robert Bowen Smith is the enraged Rep. Preston Brooks, who savagely caned the abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate in an incident that makes today’s political incivility look tame.    

These actors are the heart of the play, dispensing with almost all theatrical trappings to harness the power of imagination. Like the rest of the cast, they slip in and out of character and, between their scenes, take seats in the front rows with the audience and intently observe the action.

Only suggestions of sets and costumes augment the actors’ words and movement: Scenic designer Jessica Cancino evokes the quarry’s slabs of rock on the theater’s walls with painted corrugated cardboard. Megan Thrift’s lighting design subtly signals scene changes from the silent woods to the various settings where violent altercations occur, and Danielle Preston’s modern-dress costumes barely allude to the stature and position of an array of characters.    

Nicklas Aliff as John Brown in The Raid

Most remarkable of all may be the fight direction of Cliff Williams III, who guides the full cast of seven through the climactic raid on Harper’s Ferry. Moving en masse and then in synchronized formation, the actors morph seamlessly from rebels into the local militia and U.S. Marines and back again as they sneak up to the armory, seize their position, and finally engage in mortal combat.

Several characters return to reflect on the outcome, pondering the morality, wisdom, and impact of Brown’s quixotic attempt to arm and mobilize America’s slaves. Perhaps Frederick Douglass said it best: “No man fails, or can fail, who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause.”

The Raid will be performed at the Anacostia Playhouse through March 18, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.

 

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