By Patrick Thomas
Dawn L. Troupe, Lance Gardner, and
David Everett Moore
Photo by David Allen
Place can be a blessing, or place can be a burden. For Addison Pedigrew, it is both. As a "free colored man" in antebellum Kentucky, he must—in order to survive—remember his "place." No knocking on the front doors of white people's homes, no freedom to assemble, limited ability to travel, or shop in stores, and a host of other restrictions. But Addison (David Everett Moore) also has a place in the world where he is comfortable, confident and valued, for he is a cobbler of some repute, his shoes in high demand by the people of his county.
Addison and his younger brother Frank (Lance Gardner) live with their Aunt Dorcas (Dawn L. Troupe), and as Safe House begins we learn the family is living under even tighter restrictions due to a past, unspecified transgression. Restrictions that are to be lifted the very next day—if the sheriff keeps his promise.
That promise holds tremendous hope for Addison, who wants to build his shoemaking business into something respectable, to the point of creating a store within the family home, something black families are forbidden to do in the antebellum south. But to achieve this ambition, he will have to toady to the sheriff and make compromises of a most grave nature.
The brilliant Bay Area actor L. Peter Callender (who was stunning in Aurora's recent "Master Harold" ...and the boys) makes his Aurora directorial debut here, and it's an almost entirely successful one. Except for one odd choice at the very end of act one, his pacing and staging are spot on, and he pulls excellent performances from his cast. His acting experience serves him well—especially in terms of the physical performances he elicits from the cast. Their gestures and movements are graceful, brittle, angry, and comforting—all in the right proportion. There is an almost dance-like aspect to every movement on stage that is thrilling to witness. Gardner's Frank exhibits a perfect, loose-limbed anger that he carries with tremendous grace. We can almost feel his yearning for freedom and a simultaneous chafing under the strictures of the white power structure. As Aunt Dorcas, Troupe also embodies the pain of a life spent under the Damoclean sword of white privilege, and a rage she must contain in order to live. Her truest expression of this anger comes when she is softening some leather with a wooden mallet, while the sheriff's deputy, Bracken (Cassidy Brown), hovers nearby, and every strike carries with it a repudiation of decades of persecution.
Just when things are looking up for Addison (the governor wants some boots!), Frank's youthful impetuousness and Dorcas's generous heart threaten to undermine all the efforts Addison is making to improve the family's position. If they want greater freedom for themselves, it seems it will come at the cost of others' liberty, specifically, a young woman (Jamella Cross) making her way north via the Underground Railroad.
The relationship between the brothers, Addison and Frank, is wonderfully wrought by playwright Keith Josef Adkins. Like civil rights icons Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, both men yearn for something better for themselves and their people, but approach the fight in wildly different ways. Addison is more Martin, Frank more Malcolm, and the conflict at the core of their personalities helps drive the drama forward.
Safe House will challenge, delight, and anger you—especially in this time when so many of us feel we have taken a giant step toward the world of bigotry and xenophobia in which these characters live.
Safe House runs through December 4, 2016, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $32-$56. Tickets and additional information are available at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling 510-843-4822.