By Ruth Ross
Of all the atrocities perpetrated by Southern plantation owners on their slaves, family separation was perhaps the most egregious. Because slave marriages were not considered legal, masters felt no compunction selling off a spouse or children to settle a debt or raise money for some venture they were planning. (Left: David Roberts and Kara Green as Moses and Hannah celebrate their wedding day.)
This crime is at the heart of Nikkole Salter’s drama, Torn Asunder, now playing at Luna Stage in West Orange through February 26 as part of the celebration of Black History Month. Although I didn’t take the time to make an actual count, I’d bet that the word uttered the most during the play is family—as in actual, related family as well as a less formal family group formed by people working—and traveling—together.
Directed by Lisa Strum, this tragedy takes the audience on the inexorable and seemingly hopeless journey of Hannah Ballard to find her husband Moses from whom she was separated after her master died and his daughter inherited her and her child.
Salter tells Hannah’s story through a myriad of scenes ranging from 1859 in Prince George’s County MD through Alexandria VA (1861) to a cotton plantation near Atlanta (1865) and back to Montgomery County MD (1870); it’s worth noting that the scene changes were made effortlessly by stagehands dressed in period attire!
Stellar performances are turned in by six talented actors, one of whom plays seven roles. Karen F. Green’s Hannah appears slight and vulnerable, but she displays a spine of steel standing up to her mistress’s abusive and desperate merchant husband John Bussey, played with appropriate spleen and nastiness by Steven Makropolous (right, with Mark Hofmaier as the Speculator) as a man caught between doing business with the Confederates by engaging in trade with people supporting the Union. He even blames the slaves for the war and sells two female slaves to a speculator for money he needs for his family to survive. Initially portrayed as a malicious opportunist seeking to cement her own place in the Busseys’ slave hierarchy, Brittany A. Davis’s Malinda gains our sympathy when she finally reveals the source of her bitterness.
As the two men in Hannah’s life, David Roberts as Moses and LeVane Harrington (left with Brittany A. Davis as Malinda) as Henry Washington also shine. Roberts appears only three times, but each time his performance is suffused with a dignity that is most admirable. Harrington’s charming and effusive Henry wins our hearts as well as Hannah’s. He represents the beacon of hope that there is a meaningful familial life after slavery. The most versatile of the six is Mark Hofmaier who, with a slew of costume, demeanor and accent changes, assumes seven roles from Master to executor to Union soldier to speculator to Freedman to Census Taker, helping to move the plot along and giving voice to various white characters the principals meet along the way.
Scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader have created a believable time and place with a series of props, which Cameron Filopas has lit to perfection. We always know where we are in the story. Deborah Caney’s costumes are appropriate to the time and status of the characters wearing them while Megan Culley’s sound design adds to the fraught atmosphere, especially evident in the “crowd” scenes where newly freed Hannah and her friends hand out papers advertising the names of the people they seek.
Salter’s dialogue, as ever, is crisp and convincing without being bombastic and preachy. My only caveat is that the three-hour run time is a bit difficult to sit through; I realize that she needed that many scenes to tell the story, but there were times the play felt a bit over written.
Nevertheless, Torn Asunder is a worthy addition to the line-up of plays Luna Stage has produced in the 30 years I have been reviewing them! They have often been timely and thought-provoking, as is Torn Asunder with its connection to families torn asunder by the Nazis during the Holocaust and nearly 1000 children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border in the 21st century—both of which involve survivors searching for the family members they’ve lost. (Right: Kara Green, LeVane Harrington and Brittany Davis)
Drama has always been a subversive art. That Torn Asunder, set in 1859–1870, can connect us to more recent forced familial separations, is a credit to Nikkole Salter, the director and talented actors, and Luna Stage production team. Once again, this special local professional, black box theater shines a light on man’s inhumanity to man—and the resilience of the victims to reclaim their dignity and sense of togetherness in the face of what would appear to be daunting odds. Do not miss Torn Asunder.
Torn Asunder will be performed at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, through February 26. Tickets are available on a sliding scale of $10–$80. For tickets, visit www.lunastage.org/torn-asunder online.