Sheila Payton's new play, Facing the Shadow, which is receiving its debut production from the Black Rep at the Missouri History Museum, is set in a compelling locale: Baltimore, Maryland, in 1859. As the nation lurched toward the onset of the American Civil War, Maryland was a deeply conflicted state — a slave state, a border state. Yet in 1859 there were nearly as many free blacks living in Maryland as there were slaves. In the playbill we are informed that Baltimore was home to 25,000 free blacks.
Facing the Shadow plays out in the parlor of one of those homes. Alice Adams is hosting the monthly meeting of the Free Women of Color Literary Society. Adams' family is financially comfortable. The cultivated Alice is actually something of a snob who feels superior to those who are less educated than she is. Yet understandably, hers is a precarious existence; she lives in fear of the future. One wrong move and her freedom could be snatched away. The Literary Society is little more than a pretense that gives these women a reason to gather together. There is reassurance, if not safety, in numbers.
But if this premise is intriguing, the play itself is not. Facing the Shadow is the most rudimentary kind of scriptwriting. There are no organically developed characters; instead we get a litany of events. In researching her play, it's as if Payton went to Wikipedia and punched in "1859 Timeline." Act One is a bloodless history primer, with references to the likes of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. We learn that representatives of the fringe Know Nothing party have taken over the city government. There are references to the Lincoln-Douglas debates and to the Declaration of Independence. But to what purpose? Harriet and Fred and the fanatical John B are all reduced to window dressing. The four members of the Literary Society sit in chairs and sip their sassafras tea while the viewer waits, eventually rather impatiently, for something to happen.
Finally, at the end of the act, the wheels of action are set into motion. But it has taken 70 minutes for the story to kick in. By contrast, Act Two lasts barely 25 minutes. Although the more impassioned second act contains rhetoric, with lines like, "Sometimes it's hard to believe there's a god who cares for colored people," it's too late for the play to build to a stirring climax — and indeed the conclusion is almost anticlimactic. There are no fully developed characters here. Instead we get types. One woman is rebellious; another is so obviously timid, she might have been modeled after Prissy in Gone with the Wind. The presumably menacing hunter of runaway slaves who intrudes into the Adams home late in Act Two is such a melodramatic cliché, he seems like a carryover from a road company production of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Facing the Shadow is not yet ready for prime time. The author has made a mistake common to fledgling playwrights. She thinks that if one line of dialogue is followed by another line of dialogue, and then another, eventually she will have a play. It doesn't work that way. In drama, most dialogue is the result of inner action. Characters require needs and yearnings. A good play owes as much to what is not said as to what is.
Payton has been given a great gift. Thanks to the Black Rep, she has seen a fully staged production of her script in front of a paying audience. Most novice playwrights never receive that luxury. One can only hope that she will learn from this experience. Perhaps she can return to her play with new insights and with the understanding that she still has much work ahead of her if the potential in Facing the Shadow is to be realized.