The title of Ray Yamanouchi’s new play suggests there is only one American tradition. Is it fireworks on the Fourth of July? Is it celebrating Thanksgiving? Or is it putting out flags on Memorial Day? The walls at the 13th Street Theater hint that Yamanouchi’s view is much darker. There are posters for shows like A Darkey Misunderstanding and the musical Big Minstrel Jubilee by William H. West (1853–1902) and one that cautions “Negroes Beware: Do Not Attend Communist Meetings,” along with a 19th-century advertisement about the Democratic Party (the face of a white-bearded man) and the Republican party (a black man with unruly hair). More modern flyers hang there too: a picture of Angela Davis with the words “Black Power” and a recent Black Lives Matter poster.
The American Tradition is broadly about racism; it’s a combination burlesque and thriller about a black slave couple fleeing the antebellum South to find freedom in the North. The marrieds are an unusual pair, however: the wife, Eleanor (Sydney Cole Alexander), can pass for white, while her husband, Bill (Martin K. Lewis), has no such ability. To reach safety, Eleanor dresses as a man, Evander, and Bill poses as her slave for a train trip north; they become involved with a nutsy little slave owner named Walsh (Alex Herrald) who drinks heavily and is en route to meet a bigwig in the Ku Klux Klan to secure an admissions interview. He accepts that Eleanor is a white man and a fellow racist, and attaches himself to “him” like a barnacle.
During a layover, Alexander’s intrepid Eleanor finds a conductor, Buckley, who is committed to the abolitionist cause and secretly smuggles escaped slaves. Buckley (Hunter Canning) is in the habit of proclaiming “I’m a member of Abolitionists for America” accompanied by a Nazi-style salute. The modern echo is part of a thread of anachronism Yamanouchi uses throughout the play, similar to the film The Favourite, where bewigged courtiers vogue on the dance floor and people say “OK.” The transplanted language extends to longer passages and the occasional monologue, as when the Klan official (Canning again), boasts about the organization:
To change the mind of an entire nation, one must also expose the other as the enemy and that is the true motive of the movement. It is not about legitimizing the self but delegitimizing the other.
Eleanor and Bill become separated and have adventures. Bill rescues a female slave named Rose who has been badly mistreated by Walsh. Eleanor, meanwhile, is searching desperately for Bill while discouraging googly-eyed romantic hints from Buckley.
In revisiting the horrors of slavery, Yamanouchi doesn’t come up with much that’s fresh beyond his approach: Eleanor’s disguise as a man is as old as Twelfth Night; the involuntary Nazi-style salute from Buckley is a steal from Dr. Strangelove; and Rose’s descriptions of Walsh’s beatings call to mind 12 Years a Slave.
Still, in a satire on subjects as volatile as racism, slavery and the Klan, it’s to the credit of director Axel Avin, Jr. that the production avoids the sledgehammer tastelessness of, for instance, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and brings out Yamanouchi’s sly humor, notably in a feminist strain. Eleanor is the brains behind her escape with Bill. “We cannot continue to play into their game,” she says with a 21st-century sensibility. “We have to change the rules.” Later, as her disguise proves a burden, Eleanor says in exasperation: “It’s really tough being a white man!”
Meanwhile, Bill clumsily finds himself in need of Rose’s experience and intelligence, but when he makes a serious mistake during their escape, Rose explodes:
What does it all mean if we die here? You never trusted me, Bill. Why? What am I to you? Some accessory? Don’t “save” me if you don’t actually care about me, about us. You men... You men fight against the white master while stepping on the backs of black women.
Avin’s actors handle the mash-up of periods with aplomb. The quick-speaking, ever-clear Herrald is terrific as Walsh, a pinched little villain, and Canning boomerangs between passionate abolitionist and moony suitor with ease. Danie Steel is a powerful Rose, and Lewis holds up his end with the more stolid Bill.
Yamanouchi’s message, whether about racism or slavery or feminism, may be familiar, but the packaging and performances are just lively enough to put it over.
New Light Theater Project’s production of The American Tradition runs through Feb. 16 at the 13th Street Theater (50 W. 13th St., Manhattan). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; there is no matinee on Feb. 16, but an added performance at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 11. For tickets and information, visit newlighttheaterproject.com.