Welcome to the conversation!

Welcome to the conversation!

Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811-1896) best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), made her the most famous American woman of the 19th century and galvanized the abolition movement before the Civil War.

The Stowe Center is a 21st-century museum and program center using Stowe's story to inspire social justice and positive change.

The Salons at Stowe programs are a forum to connect the challenging issues (race, gender and class) that impelled Stowe to write and act with the contemporary face of those same issues. The Salon format is based on a robust level of audience participation, with the explicit goal of promoting civic engagement. Recent topics included: Teaching Acceptance; Is Prison the New Slavery; Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North; Creativity and Change; Race, Gender and Politics Today; How to be an Advocate

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Event Recap: Uncle Tom's Cabin On Stage

How do culture and stereotypes influence artistic decisions?  How can the stage be used to call attention to important social justice issues? 

Opening remarks from featured guests:

Alex Roe:
  • Interpretations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin are differences when it is on the Stage. Roe based his production on George Aiken's stage adaption of Uncle Tom's Cabin from 1852. 
  • The last time Uncle Tom’s Cabin was presented on stage in New York, the purpose was to restore Uncle Tom’s name. This was not Roe’s goal. He remained close to the text and addressed the complexities of the work such as the aspirations and flaws of our cultural foundation. 
  • There is a relationship between ignorance and opportunism as well as generosity versus selfishness. The story is both inspirational and shaming. 
  • In the play there is always a choice for each of the characters and it gives us the opportunity to question how we seek our power in the world and face perceptions of racial identity. 
  • Questions that needed to be addressed during production included:
    • Could we do it?  You never know what it’s going to do
    • Would it be offensive? You never know how it’s going to be recieved.
    • How do we cast it? Certain actors who auditioned struggled with the script. The use of the N word was required to remain true to the text; actors who could not follow the original text were unable to act in the play. The goal was to have actors who could embrace the characters and make the struggle of the character come to life, despite the discomfort.
    • Is it simpleminded to want to see the characters as you expect them to be? Casting “against type” was an option. Did race, age, and gender need to remain true to the original text? They saw a potential of robbing the audience of a certain experience and cast the play according to the original story.
    • If you cast 10 actors, how do you fill the roles of the 70 or so characters in the play? Auditions were critical.    
  • The actors are the ones who gave Roe the guidance he needed to accomplish this play, when he had no sense of how it should have been done. 
Greg Tate:
  • Tate has not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin; his first experience with Uncle Tom was not wanting to be “that”. 
  • His second experience was with Robert Alexander’s I Aint Yo Uncle. As the Stage Manager, Tate was making copies of the story and he started reading it as it came out of the printer. Over the course of rehearsal he became more familiar and realized he was wrong about what Uncle Tom really was. Tate compares Tom to John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”.
  • In the theater business you work on plays and art, you put your heart and soul into it, sometimes it’s a dud, sometimes it’s magical. This play was magical.
  • Racism is a common bond among Americans. It’s a tool used against us in a class war. It’s all around us. People can relate to it. The play itself was a microcosm of racism itself.
  • The original casting for this version of the play had a Japanese woman cast as Eva (who is the white daughter of slaveholder St. Clare in the original text). The actors who played Tom and Topsy had a huge problem with the casting of Eva. The idea of this white child’s power over this black male was gone. Eventually the director went back on his choice cast a white actress.
  • Tom, George, and Eliza, begin I Ain’t Yo Uncle by putting Harriet Beecher Stowe on trial for creating stereotypes. Tom wants to know why she painted him as a saint, not a man. The basis of the story follows the Aiken version of the play, but there are many changes. 
  • Topsy, for instance, comes out as a hip hop rapper.  She is violent and angry. You see her grow from a girl with no identity to a girl with an attitude who wants to burn the country down. 
  • A woman in the crowd at one of the productions stood up and shouted “You don’t have to be so mean!” Topsy yelled back, in character, “Yes, I do!” It was a visceral experience. Tate stated that this moment was one of the best moments in his career in theater. Everyone’s experience and emotion was there.
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin is so much a part of our fabric and our daily life. Part of the magic of the story. 
Group Discussion:
Why did the character of Topsy change in I Ain't Yo Uncle?
  •  In I Ain’t Yo Uncle, the playwright was trying to make a point about a child raised without parents, cultural identity, and identity all together. He showed what would happen when this child grows up and related it to what young African Americans feel today.
  • Topsy knows "wicked" so she is "wicked". Eva is the only one to tell her she can be different.
  • Topsy struggles to find an identity and in the end she turns herself into a slave to Miss Ophelia, whom she never has to leave.
  • The objectification of Topsy is so painful in the story. 
  • In 1995, at a college conference on women writers, the entertainment was set to perform songs about Uncle Tom's Cabin, which seemed great. Topsy was performed in a picaninny fashion which made the audience grab the microphone and denounce the entertainment.
When did the break between the original version of the story and the story full of stereotypes happen?
  • When freedom and equality were questioned in the 19th century. The characters offend us when our equality is questioned.
What other changes happened? 
  • The role of little Harry is very minor in the play. Roe decided to try representing Little Harry with a puppet. Puppets really show the objectification of the boy. Puppet was animated with one hand. 
  • Roe still gets emotional thinking about the bond of Eliza, who craddles the puppet to protect him from the trader. The trader takes the puppet from Eliza by the legs and his head hits the bench. 
  • The gasps in the audience (and attendees of the Salon) illistrate the power of theatrics. You really begin to invest into this wooden, styrofoam, puppet boy. He was loved and cherished, but was an object that could be bartered.
What was the struggle with the N word like?
  •  There are a lot of derogatory terms in 19th century pieces. 
  • It has been argued that words like the N word can take both the actor and the audience out of their element. The sensitivity will give pause to the audience. 
  • Roe stated that he respected the decisions of actors who auditioned, but the N word was required for the play. 
  • Because the N word has made a comeback, some of these actors may have had recent, bad experiences with the word. 
  • Has a lot to do with upbringing, attitudes, and beliefs
Would you say your experience with Tom onstage has changed your perception of the work?
  • Tate:  Majorly. The image of Uncle Tom is different than what he imagined. It was an experience to tour with the play, especially to follow the path of the Underground Railroad from the South, all the way up to Vermont. It's an inspiring story about the objectification of people.
  • Roe: If you want to live in this country and know yourself, race is an issue you deal with. It has changed his life working on the play from beginning to end. It changed his perception of the work and more importantly it changed his perception of himself.

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