The oppressors in Aurora Theatre Company’s “Safe House,” which opened Thursday, Nov. 10, are easy to identify, and easy to condemn, because they’re all kept safely offstage.
It’s not that there should be more white people in Keith Josef Adkins’ play about a black family in Kentucky in 1843, a family of cobblers who are supposedly free but whose privileges — moving from place to place, taking a dip in the creek, even keeping their front door closed — are granted and revoked at the whim of the sheriff.
But Bracken (Cassidy Brown), the local deputy and the one white character that the play does include, gets off laughably easy, so much so that the show risks letting its white audiences off the hook. Aurora chose this play last year, but especially after the results of the recent election, “Safe House” doesn’t feel like the kind of story we need Bay Area theater to tell right now.
The play allows Bracken, through his love of a black woman, Dorcas (Dawn L. Troupe), to have a racial crisis of conscience, rise to an occasion and become a better person.
By contrast, Adkins allots Dorcas almost no agency. While other characters get to escape or pursue their dreams or at least somehow reject the repugnant life options before them, Dorcas has to represent goodness and then get punished for it.
If she has any arc, it’s to begin the play as the cowed subject of her enterprising, imperious nephew Addison (David Everett Moore) and then end it there, just more acquiescent, with her dreams more quashed than before. At the close of the play, when instead of speaking up against Addison she recounts a poetic vision of Liberia, as if for the final time, and then walks offstage, she’s not just receding into her room; she’s receding from personhood.
If it seems unfair to criticize a play for showing the pain of an antebellum black person, especially when many blacks in the U.S. in that era fared far worse than Dorcas does, it’s worth remembering that it’s never the chief responsibility of a work of theater to represent history objectively, because that’s not possible anyway.
If you write a history textbook, you make subjective choices about whose stories to tell and how fully to tell them, and those choices have political ramifications: Who is important enough to have shaped a history, and who isn’t?
If you write a play, you also have to make those political storytelling choices, as well as a few more that historians aren’t burdened with: how wide the range of thought, feeling and action to allow your characters. In a play about race, those choices are all the more weighty. In “Safe House,” it’s not just a failure of narrative to give the biggest change of heart to the white character and mute the wills of Dorcas and the black characters. It’s also a political failure.
If you can stomach all that, “Safe House” features compelling performances. Brown makes Bracken a comic delight; with every movement, he’s trying to convince everyone around him, and himself, that he’s at ease with his authority working for the sheriff, even as he jumps like a mouse at the slightest surprise. Jamella Cross gives a breakout performance as Roxie, a fugitive slave who begs for the family’s aid; her skittishness conveys the horrors she’s suffered before you even see the scars.
Especially strong, though, is Lance Gardner as Frank, Addison’s brother. The play uses the two brothers as a means to stage an argument like the one Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey once embodied: To achieve rights and dignity, ought a black man work his way up within the whites’ power structure, fight it or walk away from it altogether? In those battles, Gardner makes Frank’s every restless motion, sometimes each word in a short, declarative sentence, into its own weapon.
Elsewhere, L. Peter Callender’s direction suffers from a lack of clarity. Addison, who has a restless drive to make the family shoe business more legitimate and successful, is supposed to have an iron will that intimidates his family, yet Moore makes him all buffoon, two beats slower than everyone else. Early in the play, the love Bracken feels for Dorcas doesn’t pack enough heat to make his climactic decision seem plausible.
If another sense, though, Bracken’s decision is inevitable. In playing it safe, “Safe House” is doomed to make its white character a hero.
Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @LilyJaniak
Safe House: By Keith Josef Adkins. Directed by L. Peter Callender. Through Dec. 4. $32-$56. Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Two hours, 10 minutes. (510) 843-4822. www.auroratheatre.org
To see a video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGY39qZ5S6Y