‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ production offers dramatic role reversal

EgoPo Classical Theater is trying to shake off 50 years of accumulated popular acrimony toward what was once a classic of American literature.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” opening this weekend at Plays and Players Theater in Rittenhouse Square, will be performed with black actors in the white roles, and white actors in the black roles.

One scene of a slave owner transporting newly purchased African Americans in the hull of a ship has a large black man tossing bread crusts at a group of whites chained to the floor.

“Thank you, Massah,” they grovel. Above them, in the seating area for ticketed passengers, black actors portraying wealthy white abolitionists tut-tut the tragedy of slavery while sipping tea. “What a shame to our country!”

What could have been a revenge-fantasy play, a la Quentin Tarantino, instead is meant to be a sensitive exploration of American race relations, shaking off the story’s negative connotations that have been accumulating for 50 years.

“Now, in practicality, it’s almost a banned book,” said Lane Savadove, founder of EgoPo Classical Theater and the director of this production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

“You would never see it on a school reading list anymore.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in 1852 and became the most popular book of the 19th century, second only to the Bible. Its popularity made it a natural for the stage during the vaudeville era, when Americans of all strata were hungry for theater and anything was game, copyright-wise. It was constantly in production, somewhere in America, for more than a century.

Offensive characters not part of Stowe’s vision

Savadove says the stock characters who gave the story a racist pall were created in those stage productions, too numerous to count, which pulled and manipulated Stowe’s African-American characters into figures of passive complacency, ignorance and laziness. Stowe created moral nuance on the page, but when translated to the boards, the very name of her titular character became a shameful slight.

“She looks to change American culture and politics through empathy, as opposed to through ridicule or critique,” Savadove said. “It’s a very deep, very profoundly American way of examining something, but in a way that we’ve lost.”

In academic circles, the novel has been regaining ground. Professor William Allen, who teaches at Villanova University and authored “Rethinking Uncle Tom: The Political Philosophy of Harriet Beecher Stowe,” says the novel was a radical work of abolitionist thought, with a range of characters drawn so readers would empathize with each them, from the noble Christian martyr Uncle Tom to the sadistic Simon Legree.

“It is certainly an anti-slavery novel, but it is an anti-slavery novel that is careful to depict the damage slavery does, not to enslaved people, but the people enslaving them,” said Allen. “In that sense, it’s a novel about American character, American politics and American morality.”

Inspired by a courageous act

Savadove was inspired to stage this “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a way of spinning audiences toward racial empathy when he saw then-Sen. Barack Obama make the “race speech” in Philadelphia during his first presidential campaign in 2007

“I made a promise to myself — that speech was so courageous, I need to do something equally courageous in theater,” he said.

The play, which opens this weekend, already has been the center of controversy for months — people wondering if this is just a project fueled by white guilt, and why do we need a play about slaves at all? Before the curtain comes up, the pressure is already on.

“We have no leeway in this play but to act it incredibly well,” Savadove said. “Which means we cannot at all depend on stereotypes. If you have watched contemporary theater closely, you’ll see that often actors really are playing into contemporary stereotypes. But they’re contemporary, so we don’t notice that much.”

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” continues at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, through June 9.

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