“Civic Ensemble Lands Powerful Blow”
Review by Ross Haarstad
The profound and shattering experience that is Judy Tate’s play Fast Blood plunges us into three Black lives on a slave plantation in the antebellum South while speaking urgently to the struggles of today, especially the ongoing strategy of separating of children from their families.
Tate writes with both scope and a painful, heart-tugging intimacy. At the center of her story are the enslaved couple, Effie and Ham, who encounter a near dead lynched man in the woods. Effie demands they cut him down and tend to him. This mysterious stranger calls himself Lazarus and claims he has a message for Ham.
What ensues is both a nail-biting drama as white forces scour the countryside for the missing body (Tate brilliantly reworks the tropes of 19th century melodrama) ßand a harrowing yet deeply spiritual journey into the past, all centered on Mama Tuni, a woman of magic and wisdom, the “Last African” shipped out of West Africa and being used as a brood mare by plantation owner Massa Calhoun.
Fast blood refers to blood that readily comes to the surface, a trait that might save an enslaved person from a longer whipping. While highly theatricalized, the play doesn’t flinch from such moments of violencenot as a voyeuristic ‘victim trauma’ but as a deeply implicating witnessing of everyday horror.
Stark choices face Effie and Ham; at the beginning Ham argues for the expedient measure of self-preservation, release Lazarus to death and bury him. Effie, once a midwife, argues for life and healing. Lazarus argues for freedom and retribution. Each choice is deeply human, wholly understandable and fraught with consequences.
Gender is as much in play as race. Effie undertakes a journey to rid herself of the notion of herself as property, even to Ham. Mary Calhoun, the half-mad wife of the plantation owner is beset by jealousy over her husband’s ‘preference’ for Mama Tuti.
The violence of chattel slavery and a particularly American patriarchy are set against each character’s ability to choose a path, to carve out a life that might even include honor and redemption; such a choice is even given to the initially comic white boy, G.K. Where in the depths of trauma and injustice, Tate asks, can we find the possibility of redemption.
A short review cannot do adequate justice to the brilliance of this text nor its soaring poetry. Tate writes mesmerizing monologues easily comparable to August Wilson, for instance, but re-centering her narrative on the women’s experiences. And she has great flashes of humor, especially in the relationship of Ham and Effie.
Beth F. Milles directs with compassion, force and clarity. Civic Ensemble’s Artistic Director Godfrey Simmons has chosen to present the story outdoors, in the rustic Maggie Goldsmith Amphitheatre (scenic consultant, Norm Johnson) and Milles weaves in the outdoors as part of the storyat one point, Mary Calhoun sits like a ghost by a lightning-struck oak. The action is propelled by Derek Goddard’s drumming and actors provide the sounds of wind, hounds and a crying baby.
Messeret Stroman Wheeler inhabits Effie with grace and a ferocious willpower. Her performance strokes Tate’s poetry and delves into the sorrow, while constantly holding to the light. Saba Weatherspoon plays the Young Effie with stalwartness and ease. Vernice P. Miller radiates power, fierce maternal longing, and defiant honesty in her portrait of Mama Tuni. Rounding out the women, Sarah K. Chalmers brings a roiling chaos of pain and desperation to the almost ghostly Mary Calhoun.
Godfrey L. Simmons Jr. brings to Ham the sense of a long life of survival, of a soul anchored deep within, yet still a man confounded by his ‘woman.’ Simmons mixes humor, bluster and an aching vulnerability. As Lazarus Ryan Hope Travis is at first a stunning, staggering presence, coursing with rage and power. Yet tenderness also grows in this ravaged man.
Jacob White gives starkly honest portraits of the lecherous Calhoun and the combative Jason Mann while Joshua Sedelmeyer neatly shows G.K.’s frailty and underlying goodness.