Chicago Theatre Review
Jackalope’s ‘Franklinland’ a gripping, if historically incomplete, portrait of a man
Franklinland – Jackalope Theatre
Benjamin Franklin was many things: a brilliant inventor, a notorious philanderer, a shameless braggart, and a committed devotee to the natural world, to say nothing of his civic contributions to the United States. For “Franklinland,” a world-premiere production at Jackalope Theatre Company, all of those elements of Franklin are on full display, but the focus in on an aspect of Franklin that not many know – that of Franklin the father.
In his life, Franklin only had one son who lived to adulthood, and their relationship was a complicated one. Born illegitimate from a prostitute, William Franklin lived in the shadow of his celebrity father, who various inventions (the lightning rod, the odometer, the flexible urinary catheter) and civic involvements (the founding of the University of Pennsylvania) made him a celebrity long before the American Revolution. And although William became quite accomplished in his own right, and eventually became the Governor of New Jersey before the Revolution, he split with his father over the Revolutionary War, and lived the rest of his days in exile.
That tension surges through “Franklinland,” and courtesy of playwright Lloyd Suh, lead actors Tom Hickey (Ben) and Kai Ealy (William) have beautiful dialogue to aid their performances. Writing about previous time periods is difficult, especially if one is trying to do so in an accurate fashion. The slogans and jargon of today bear no similarities to past eras, and one of my biggest pet peeves with historical dramas is how the writing and characterizations essentially place modern people into the costumes of, say, 18th century France or 19th century London. Suh, however, is able to strike a wonderful balance, writing dialogue that is both snappy and compelling to the modern ear but also flowery, ornate, and appropriately bombastic for someone of Franklin’s ego. And Suh is aided considerably by Hickey and Ealy, who under the direction of Chika Ike give nuanced, energetic performances. Furthermore, all the other aspects of the show, from Milo Bue’s scenic designs to Lacie Hexom’s props, are as detailed and appropriate as in any of Jackalope’s previous productions.
Indeed, there are passages of “Franklinland” – when Hickey’s Ben is describing the majesty of the natural world, or when father and son are arguing over the merits of the revolution and, eventually, descend into a comical fight – that positively sing, and the play’s 80-odd minutes of intermission-free theater are some of the best you’ll ever see. If there is any issue I have with “Franklinland,” it is one of historical accuracy, and I’m not sure if I’m entirely fair to criticize the play on those grounds. With the casting of Ealy (who is black) as William, Jackalope seems to be approaching the material similar to how Lin-Manuel Miranda cast his epochal musical “Hamilton,” in that people of color were deliberately cast in the roles of white historical figures to demonstrate how integral black and brown folks were in the early days of America. That’s all good and well. My issue is one of specifics. It’s one thing to cast people of color in a historical work; it’s another matter to capture the racial dynamics of the era, and like “Hamilton,” “Franklinland” falls short in achieving that. For instance, there is one reference to slavery in the entire play, and it is an implicit one (William married the daughter of a wealthy slaveholder in Barbados). Meanwhile, recently histories by Wendy Warren, Edward Baptist, and others have reaffirmed the unique importance of slavery in the world economy, and that without slavery, the modern, industrial economy would have not developed as it did.
To be clear, I am not asking that “Franklinland” be re-written to accommodate that history, or that the play be doubled in length to incorporate it; rather, I think it important to point out that the importance of slavery (and the racism that evolved to justify it) never quite receives proper attention in historical dramas, and it’s about time that we start aiming for such accuracy.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Running through Feb. 24, presented by Jackalope Theatre Company at Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N Broadway
Tickets are available by visiting www.jackalopetheatre.org
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.