Uprising is, quite simply, what live theater is meant to be. The gripping story, set in 1859 and told with pathos and humor, asks questions about the nature of freedom, family, sacrifice, and revolution. The entire ensemble delivers powerful yet nuanced performances offering three-dimensional, relatable characters who must make tough choices.
Written by playwright and filmmaker Gabrielle Fulton, Uprising is the story of Sal (Cynthia D. Barker), a former enslaved woman who was freed when the master died. She is proud of her position in the free black community as the daily winner of the prize given to the worker who picks the most cotton. Content to work in field, she is striving to realize her dream to make enough money to build a school for her son Freddie (Jeremiah Hasty).
Sal is satisfied with her life until she discovers Ossie (Anthony Manough) hiding in the field. He is smart, charming, and passionate about his mission to end slavery. But he is also a fugitive, sought by the authorities for his participation in John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Ossie’s obvious affection for Sal throws her into confusion even as his presence and the danger he poses brings conflict to the entire community that includes Bo-Jack (Enoch King), a man with an unrequited love for Sal; Lottie (Roz White), who was separated from her family 15 years earlier; and Charlie Pick (Doug Brown), a comical man who is more than he first seems. Their lives are controlled by the whims of Whistle (Peter Boyer), the overseer of the free plantation where they live.
Ms. Barker is a delight, portraying the full range of Sal’s personality and emotions including self-confidence, playfulness, and joy as well as confusion, annoyance, and outrage. She never makes a misstep in her commanding stage presence. At the heart of the story is the tension between Ossie’s call to bring about a greater justice and Sal’s desire to create a life of love and opportunity for her son.
As the fugitive, Anthony Manough embodies Ossie’s fierce determination—some may say obsession—for freeing the enslaved. He never doubts the righteousness of his actions nor his ability to win Sal’s affections. Manough delivers a mature performance that meets the challenge of matching the energy and quality of Barker’s.
Jeremiah Hasty as Freddie, the child who knows little of life outside his small group, is a great surprise. Uprising is the fourth grader’s first professional production but he has an unassuming confidence that doesn’t seek to grab the spotlight as some child actors can do. He is always focused on the action on stage, reacting as if this is the first time he has ever heard the words. He more than holds his own as he tries to be his mother’s protector when encountering Ossie for the first time, and is devastatingly convincing in the final scene of Act 1.
I was impressed with the entire cast who each have their moments to shine. Enoch King is wonderful as he searches for the right words to woo Sal. Roz White, in two very different roles, is to be commended for so strongly differentiating the two characters that I was first unsure if it was indeed the same actor. Doug Brown’s comic talent as well as his skill in delivering an emotional monologue about his character’s past is a terrific combination. Peter Boyer also plays two roles, each on opposite sides of the abolitionist movement. He successfully varies his energy, physicality, and speech to bring two important characters to life.
There is one additional cast member: blues guitarist David Cole delivers the soundtrack for the story and the accompaniment for the songs and dances. For those of you who don’t like musicals, please understand this is a play with music, not a musical. Cole is an amazing musician who is also, like the rest of the cast, a strong vocalist. Musical Director William Knowles ensures that the music never overpowers or slows the story. Music was and is such an important part of the black experience that the story would suffer without it.
Gabrielle Fulton has written a story steeped in the history of the pre-Civil War era and inspired by the stories of her great-grandmother who picked cotton. It is, as MetroStage’s Producing Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin, a story with “characters you care about and characters you believe in.” The play is tightly constructed, weaving together action, dialogue, music, and dance to create a compelling story with a strong sense of time and place.
Uprising is directed by veteran MetroStage writer and director Thomas W. Jones II who uses the full space of the intimate theater to pull the audience more deeply into the story. He and the cast have incorporated a number of subtle touches—a glance, a quick touch of a hand, a hesitation before speaking—that bring greater dimension to the production.
Scenic and Projection Director Robbie Hayes has created a modest set, effectively using some wooden pieces combined with scenes projected on the back flat. With just a few set pieces and props, the Pennsylvania plantation housing becomes a home in Philadelphia. The lighting (Lighting Designer Alexander Keen), sound (Roni Lancaster and Thom Jenkins), and costumes (Costume Designer Janine Sunday) are all consistent with the high quality production.
Uprising, part of Women’s Voices Theater Festival, should not be missed. It is a dynamic story pitting freedom vs. power, revolution vs. security, and romantic love vs. familial love.
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.
‘Uprising’ Plays September 17-October 25th at MetroStage as Part of The Women’s Voices Theater Festival.