Chicago Theater Review: AN ISSUE OF BLOOD: AN HISTORIC PARABLE (Victory Gardens)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 11, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Six symbolic lives get ruthlessly entangled in this blast from the past. The world is pre-independent Virginia circa 1676 and the outcome is today in Marcus Gardley’s An Issue of Blood: An Historical Parable. Of course the real issue isn’t blood as much as race in this passionate Victory Gardens premiere. And the real time is now, not the colonial era just before the witchcraft hysteria in Salem. Gardley has located a fateful turning point–when indentured servitude solidified into chattel slavery and an immigrant, whether voluntary or hopeful, could never hope to work off his debt. It was the death of hope and it stained the American dream before it even began.

Tosin Morohunfola, Lizan Mitchell

As much fantasy as parable, this 100-minute one-act imagines a slightly more promising past in order to condemn the current crisis. The setting is a searing summer on an extensive tobacco plantation outside Jamestown owned and run by Negro Mary (Lizan Mitchell). The daughter of an African chief (who proudly proclaims his blood within her), this instantly mythical character is a formidable widower whose marriage to a white planter from Barbados and whose ability to make the earth yield crops has made her a Tidewater tyro in the young colony.

Tosin Morohunfola, Eleni Pappageorge

To protect her beloved son John Israel First (Tosin Morohunfola) from prejudice–and because she fears that the land may “eat” this boy who carries a curse–Mary had sent him to London to learn a trade. But the eager freeman has now returned to marry an Irish Catholic indentured servant named Calla (Eleni Pappageorge) who loves him for his future, not his skin. Now pregnant with John’s child, Calla in turn is doggedly pursued by the white constable Mason Esau (Steve O’Connell) who she predictably prefers.

Tosin Morohunfola, E. Faye Butler

Providing chorus-like commentary on the action are two more indentured servants fearing and facing the prospect of lifelong bondage. Not surprisingly, a revolt by black and white slaves–“Bacon’s Rebellion,” the earliest resistance in American history–is imminent. Thirteen years in manumission to Negro Mary, a benevolent if quirky mistress, (and that means serving a lot of cucumber sandwiches), housekeeper Nova Goode (E. Faye Butler) is a Griot conjure-woman married to Dozens (Cleavant Derricks), her righteously rebellious husband. A colored Cassandra, she sees the future but can’t escape it. This stalwart couple inevitably get caught up in history: The estate is torched and even Jamestown fed to the flames in what would be the first and last slave rebellion by members of both races.

E. Faye Butler, Steve O'Connell, Eleni Pappageorge, Tosin Morohunfola, Lizan Mitchell, Cleavant Derricks

The play pivots on history, and its violent end, tragically, brings it right into 2015 (the final moments bring heavy echoes from Ferguson and MLK). To keep it elemental, Gardley adopts a rhapsodic, Faulkner-like depiction of the land as living, telling the settlers to “Work me!” and punishing those who contaminate it with blood as well as sweat. As much as anything that happens here, An Issue of Blood is haunted by what might have been. John Israel First returns to America an enlightened as much as emancipated progressive whose contribution to Virginia might have rivaled Jefferson’s a century later–if given the same start. When Mary gives her hard-won blessing to her son’s interracial marriage, that kindness becomes a curse when art imitates history.

Steve O'Connell, E. Faye Butler, Cleavant Derricks, Tosin Morohunfola

Barely skirting melodramatic excess, the characters, as written, seem tethered to their metaphorical meaning more than integrated into an urgent and organic plot. But, as acted in this stirring staging by Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew, this is a very persuasive potboiler: Its final tableau of the three women in proto-feminist and anti-racist revenge delivers a call to arms in the present sense.

Lizan Mitchell (front). Eleni Pappageorge, Tosin Morohunfola

Lizan Mitchell, as the dynastic dowager Negro Mary, is a force of nature and a legend in the making. Keeping it real and endowing the one-act with her perfect singing, E. Faye Butler grounds the action as earth-mother Nova, in touch with her ancestors and seeing into today. Cleavant Derricks brings stolid decency to Dozens, and Tosin Morohunfola offers elegant class as hopeful John Israel First. As the whites caught up in the contradictions of sex and status, Steve O’Connell and Eleni Pappageorge are pawns of a plot that’s not above human sacrifice–but they bring chilling immediacy to their unearned privilege.

(front) Steve O'Connell, Tosin Morohunfola

photos by Michael Courier

Cleavant Derricks, E. Faye Butler

An Issue of Blood: An Historical Parable
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave
ends on May 3, 2015
for tickets, call 773.871.3000 or visit

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