From the moment that Nambi E. Kelly takes the stage as the title character in the world premiere of Chicago playwright Lydia Diamond’s “Harriet Jacobs,” based on the memoir “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” being given at Steppenwolf for Young Adults, she addresses the audience at a direct and visceral level of the apathy that most of us are apt to feel experiencing a “slave drama.” “Tell us something that we haven’t heard or that we don’t know? I lived it and I don’t understand it,” she says. There is an immediate connection made, which becomes more vivid by the fact that the entire cast is on stage to witness the story—even commenting upon it via haunting and superbly harmonized a cappella spirituals—for every moment of this gripping drama which seeks not so much to explain slavery, which as Harriet rightly says, could never be done, but rather, to experience what she went through and what her thoughts were and why she made the choices she made while being treated “like a piece of furniture.” This play pulls no punches, sometimes with onstage violence, but ironically, the descriptions of offstage violence are even more brutal than what is shown, suggesting that the play might actually be more effective by showing less. The main caveat about this otherwise superb play and production is the conscious decision to have an all-black cast, including blacks playing the brutal white slave owners, which ends up blunting the power and the horror of those scenes by not only taking the audience out of the reality that has been created, but by inadvertently suggesting the possible and dangerous interpretation that black slavery is somehow merely a “black story” rather than a reality beyond race. (Dennis Polkow)
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, (312)335-1650. This production is now closed.