When Samm-Art Williams tells a story, he likes to delve into obscure “tidbits” of history deliberately omitted. Like Blacks who fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy or those who were slave-owners—that part of history African-Americans, in particular, seem to have amnesia about.
Williams is willing to share that history and choose Pittsburgh as the place to drop this particular piece of knowledge, which is why his play, “Last of the Line,” makes its world premiere run on the stage of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
|ALL IN THE FAMILY—From left: Kevin Brown, Montae Russell, Bria Walker and Brenda Marks in “Last of the Line.” (Photo by Emmai Alaquiva)
Williams met staff from the AWC attending at the National Black Theater Festival in North Carolina last summer. He hit it off with president/CEO Andre Kimo Stone Guess and Artistic Director of Theater Initiatives Mark Clayton Southers; the trio established a quick and easy rapport built on reputation and similar ideas about the future of Black theatre. That led to the opportunity for the “Last of the Line” to make is debut to the world in Pittsburgh.
“A play is very much like a new baby, you must have trust in the people in whose care you place it,” explained Williams. “In order to be open to changes and feedback for a premiere, a playwright must have trust in those factors. I get that with these guys.”
The subject matter is another need for the tender loving care. “You don’t get to choose your family,” says Williams in reference to his own family’s history. “Whatever your family background is you shouldn’t be ashamed of it; trying to be something other than what we are is why our lives go astray.”
“Very few of us are willing to discuss the family history of Blacks owning slaves,” says Williams, “and hundreds of Blacks were slave-owners and some of them fought for the South. We (as Blacks) rarely discuss that. There’s a lot of fallout from slavery that we’re still dealing with. We weren’t ‘re-programmed’.”
The historical complexity of Williams’ “dramedy” is not lost on the actors cast. For the most part, they’ve been forced to wrap their minds around the prevailing paradigm of Blacks and slavery in America in a different scheme that is the exact opposite of what they (we) were taught in classroom.
The play recounts the reality of those contradictions within one family as they come face to face with its past and its future (or lack) thereof. Gabriel (Montae Russell), the youngest male heir of the Jameson legacy, is ashamed of his family’s slaveholding past and is determined to distance himself from it while his brother and sister have wholeheartedly embraced it.
Neither Alfonso Jameson (Kevin Brown) nor Clora Jameson Hudson (Brenda Marks) have sons, so the pressure on the hapless Gabriel to carry on the name. Both Al and Clora underscore of the urgency by retelling the family history (revealed to the audience through “flashbacks”) full of cunning, determination, honor and above all, preservation of family. It’s also a tale of divided loyalties and interpretation of that history ranging from 2005 to 1845-75.
Another interested party is a neighbor of the Jamesons who serves as the family’s confidante and legal advisor.
The interplay of storylines through flashbacks affords the play an additional “ancestor” ensemble to realize the antebellum and Civil War timelines. Vanessa German and Les Howard portray the goodhearted Cornelia and Zebediah Jameson, who plied his trades as a carpenter and blacksmith to purchase his freedom and that of his bride. Zeb also secured his brother Isaac’s manumission only to have the war draw battle lines that pit brother against brother.
The set filled with luscious antique furnishings and period portraits and pictures bring an authentic feel to the Jameson plantation family homestead.
The supporting cast of ancestors (Leo L. Beatty, Myneesha Miller-King, Tracy D. Turner) along with Jason A. Shavers as Isaac provide the historical context for the present day dilemma, while Bria Walker as attorney Sylvia Bradley brought more than enough fortitude to stand up to Russell’s indignant Gabriel. Brown and Marks were on point as the ever-loving and ever-critical siblings who attempt to connive and cajole their baby brother to save the family.
As with most new plays, “Last of the Line” could benefit from fine-tuning to tighten the script but director Mark Clayton Southers drew together a rich cast to help smooth over the rough patches.
Overall, “Last of the Line” is entertaining, illuminating and like all good works of theatre, is a catalyst for additional tracing of one’s roots. Come to think of it, Alex Haley would be proud.
(“Last of the Line” continues through October at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, 980 Liberty Ave. in the Cultural District, Downtown. For show times and ticket information, call 412-258-2700 or log on to augustwilsoncenter.org.)