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The Slave Who Became A Man

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 14, 2012

The Slave Who Became a Man tells the true story of Ellen and William Craft, who in the 1840s escaped from slavery in Georgia in a most creative way: since Ellen was fair-skinned (she was half-white), she posed as a white man traveling with his slave, and in this disguise the two made their way from Macon to Philadelphia and freedom.

Unfortunately, the brief (approximately 35 minutes) script by Georgiana Hart does little more than sketch out the story as just outlined. I was eager to see this play because it sounded like an exciting tale, ripe for dramatization. What obstacles did Ellen and William overcome? How did two uneducated slaves hatch such a clever plan? Where did Ellen get her male attire from, and how was she able to effectively convince strangers that she was a white Southern gentleman? What happened to Ellen and William after they accomplished their daring escape?

Sadly, almost none of these ripe opportunities for riveting theater have found their way to the stage in this play or production. The most extreme difficulty we see Ellen and William face is having to bluff their way around signing a train registration form (as Ellen could not write). There's also a somewhat gratuitous scene in which Ellen as her male alter ego William Johnson must listen to a white Southern lady talk about "niggers," but beyond that very little of the danger or anxiety of the Crafts' audacious journey is depicted.

I wondered whether William Craft would actually have been allowed to roam freely through a train in antebellum Georgia, as he is shown doing here.

The cast of eight, augmented by Aaron Seglin on harmonica and a voiceover artist offering occasional narration, seemed under-rehearsed. Production values, despite an extensive design team, seemed similarly under-ripe. Direction by Keith Hoovler is competent to move the cast through Hart's minimal script, but adds little to it.

Despite its intriguing subject matter, The Slave Who Became a Man is not a show I can recommend, and does not represent FringeNYC at its best. But I will give it credit for awakening me to a tale from American history that I knew nothing about. It turns out the Crafts wrote a book about their experiences called Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, which I am going to have to take a look at!