Chicago Theatre Review
Sins of Our Fathers
An Issue of Blood – Victory Gardens Theater
While working on a very different script that explored Chicago’s Great Migration, playwright Marcus Gardley instead became inspired by current events happening around the country to write an historical drama, set in 17th century Jamestown. Moved by the tragedies in Ferguson, of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and so many other recent senseless crimes against men and women of color, Gardley felt that another story needed to be told. “In order to begin a conversation about race relations,” Mr. Gardley says, “you need to start at the beginning.” And thus an historic parable unfolds, peppered with humor, magic and Negro folk songs, and presenting a tale of class distinction, racial prejudice and human rights. Set on a large Colonial Virginian tobacco planation, this play brings to life six characters, black and white, whose lives ultimately become entwined.
The playwright reminds us that who we are today is largely determined by who we were yesterday, centuries before. The events of this parable, based upon the incidents that led to Bacon’s Rebellion and the burning of Jamestown in 1676, begin with a character named Negro Mary. Claiming to have been the first African American woman in the New World, Mary was once the daughter of an African chieftain, who married a white Barbados planter and eventually found herself in the New World. Over time, Mary inherited an iron-willed pride, a skill for working the earth and an enormous tobacco plantation. Once a slave herself, Mary now has hundreds of her own slaves and indentured servants toiling and sweating to keep her plantation running smoothly.
Fearful of the rampant prejudice in Jamestown, and believing that the earth will someday consume him, Mary sent her only child, John Israel First, to London to be educated. The young, cultured gentleman returns home with Calla, a lovely Irish indentured servant, with whom he’s fallen in love and intends to marry; in return, Calla will become a free woman as a result of their union. We learn, however, that not only is the young Irish lass equally attracted to Constable Mason Esau, a married white man, but that Calla is also pregnant. Nova Goode, the sassy Negro servant who raised John, and her husband Dozens Goode, are the hardworking, respected house slaves who actually keep Mary’s planation running, all the while dreaming of their own freedom. Nova has a gift of being able to “read” people and see the future; her husband Dozens, who adores his wife, can see the future, himself. It’s about to be riddled with the violence of rebellion, resulting in tragedy, death and destruction.
This cast, directed by Artistic Director Chay Yew, is impeccable. The talent that’s been assembled to tell this story is terrific, including a sparse, stylish set by Myung Hee Cho, Christine Binder’s evocative lighting design and an array of authentic period costumes by Izumi Inaba. E. Faye Butler, one of Chicago’s most accomplished, awe-inspiring talents, is wonderful as Nova Goode. Not only does she bring her undisputed comic and dramatic talent to this role, Ms. Butler also leads the entire cast, raising their voices in song to create several gorgeous, a cappella musical moments. Ms. Butler’s Nova loves John Israel as much as she adores her husband Dozens, acted with strength and dignity, power and passion by the wonderful Cleavant Derricks. Played with honesty and passion, Mr. Derricks’ tragic character stays with the audience long after the curtain falls.
Lizan Mitchell, is magnificent as Negro Mary. Staunch, bold and exquisitely eloquent, Ms. Mitchell is the first character the audience sees in silhouette, but her initial impression is of a strong woman whose epic story is about to unfold. Bearing a catlike quality, reminiscent of the late Eartha Kitt, Lizan Mitchell is the personification of strength and determination against all odds. Tosin Morohunfola is a young actor who brings grace, youthful enthusiasm and empathy to his portrayal of John Israel First. The indignities, injustices and hurt inflicted upon him by Constable Esau (played with conviction and drive by Steve O’Connell), Calla (the lovely, spirited Eleni Pappageorge) and even his own mother, Negro Mary, are endured by this character with class and conviction of principle.
Chay Yew’s wonderfully stirring, gorgeously mounted production of Marcus Gardley’s new play, may tell a tale from a time long ago, but the story actually reflects and is inspired by recent current events. This 90-minute one-act should spark many a conversation about how race relations have evolved over the years but how, in so many ways, they continue to remain the same. This is one of Victory Garden’s best productions and shouldn’t be missed.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 3-May 3 by Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by visiting or calling the box office at 773-871-3000 or by going to www.victorygardens.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.