By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
This has nothing to do with anything, but I recently noticed that Pittsburgh’s theater offerings have undergone a quiet, but welcome shift.
Though it breaks my heart to say it, theater in general tends toward entertaining an upper-income, predominantly white crowd. That makes me sad for a number of reasons, not the least is that I believe theater can be the most immediate of art forms and has a capacity to speak directly to an audience in a way which is unique – so it can be disheartening that so much theater ends up being about suburban infidelity.
Savior Samuel continues at the Trust Arts Education Center, 805 Liberty Avenue. Downtown through March 16. www.pghplaywrights.org
And while I’m sure this summer will bring an armada of such plays, over the last few months it’s been encouraging to hear the range of voices coming across local footlights. Just since the New Year I’ve seen plays about the Latinx experience, a cultural revisioning of the founding of the U.S., a look at recent African-American political history, a meditation on our country’s gun laws and propensity toward violence and this week we’ve two plays featuring a 21st examination of the African-American experience in the 19th century.
You’ll find the review of Kinetic Theatre’s An Octoroon elsewhere on this site, but let’s use this space to stop in at Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre Company’s world premiere of a new work by local theater impresario Mark Clayton Southers.
The play is called Savior Samuel and I think I misspoke; it is a world premiere but it’s not a new work. Southers wrote the play in 2002 but during the development process some unhelpful remarks from a director so discouraged Southers he locked the play away.
Fortunately Pittsburgh Playwrights Artistic Associate Monteze Freeland recently read the script and told Southers it needed be part of the company’s 15th anniversary season.
The story begins in 1877 and two former slaves, Benjamin and Virginia, are homesteading out on the prairie. Their young daughter Essie – who is deaf – is revealed to be pregnant and nobody knows who the father is.
An itinerate preacher/doctor visits the family and is asked by Benjamin to take the newborn to a convent school for orphans several hundred miles away.
The doctor, with the baby, stops by his house on the way and his wife falls so hard for the infant she gives him a name, Samuel, and decides to raise him herself. But Samuel needs more care than she can give so he ends up at the school.
I’m not giving anything away (especially since it’s in the title) when I tell you that every person with whom Samuel comes in contact is mysteriously healed, both physically and emotionally, and the play ends with a really big miracle.
Any day there’s a new Southers play is a good day in my book, and it’s interesting to see such an early script from a playwright whose work has matured and deepened in the intervening time.
Savior Samuel is a sprawling, extravagant play saying about 100 different things all at once; in his program note Southers himself calls the play “fearless”, an excellent description.
Southers is a such a strong writer that he can get you caught up in emotional moments that, on reflection, probably don’t actually work. There’s so much going on in the script with extraneous characters and dramatic cul-de-sacs it’s never really clear the exact story Southers is aiming to tell. But this is a first production, directed with force by Freeland, of an early work and it’ll be interesting to see where Southers ends in relation to where he began.
Jonathan Berry is dignity and compassion as the doctor, while Wali Jamal and Cheryl El-Walker provide intense performances as Benjamin and Virginia. Dominique Briggs and Susie McGregor-Laine are humanizing as women searching for solace, Marsha Mayhak and Sam Lothard bring strength and texture in supporting roles. And Aaliyah Sanders just about breaks your heart playing Essie’s enormous sense of loss.