Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 2, 2019

REVIEW: Williamstown Theatre Festival, “A Human Being, of a Sort”

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through July 7, 2019
By Barbara Stroup

Williamstown Theatre Festival presents a thoughtful play about captivity and racial injustice by spotlighting an intimate, one-to-one relationship. Thoughtful, yes. Stage-worthy drama? More on that below…..

Background: In 1906 an “explorer” (Vermer) brought an African “pygmy” (Ota Benga) to America as a specimen of racial “oddity,” an example to be studied and exploited with no thought to what would follow. After providing entertaining diversion for the zoo-going crowds, Mr. Benga, an adult with children left behind in Africa, died in an orphanage, probably at his own hand.

The playwright, Jonathan Payne, layers onto these heart-wrenching facts an intimate story that addresses power between individuals thrown together by a society that is trying its best to diminish them both. Assigned to Mr. Benga’s cage on an almost 24-hour basis, Smokey (played by André Braugher) is working off the last of his “debt to society” (he stole apples for his hungry family) through his employment at the zoo. He desperately wants to succeed at this job, and not to be returned by his employer, Mr. Hornaday, to the prison work farm.

In real life, Ota had no English-speaking ability, but for the sake of his drama, the playwright gives him fluent English. And for the sake of the drama, the audience can accept this misrepresentation so that the relationship between Ota and Smokey can develop.

As Smokey, Braugher makes a full commitment to expressing the inner conflicts the situation places on him. This job merely extends his own captivity, and his future freedom depends on his success. The audience feels his torment of being inches away from freedom and at the same time, being a jailer himself. The intensity of his expression helps the audience cope with the pain of watching the injustice of both imprisonments. He models both “good prisoner” to his superior and “good guard” to Ota.

Other members of this cast include Antonio Michael Woodard, who plays Ota. His physicality is perfect, and the strange demands of the role are well-represented. Woodard evokes startles, chuckles, and empathy. As they struggle with the zoo owner over the imprisonment of a human being, the three members of the clergy are convincing. Frank Wood, as the zoo owner Hornaday, has power over Smokey and over Ota. Wood speaks far too quickly, and his speeches disappear into the ether. And that is one of this play’s problems – it is packed full of speeches. Structurally, the soliloquy seems awkward and the closing scene misplaced: far more empathy and understanding would be evoked by placing the African encounter between Vermer and Benga at the start.

The set fails the script badly and seems to represent an Adirondack hunting lodge rather than a zoo owner’s office. Why is Ota’s cage three-sided? Accomplished with lighting, perhaps an abstraction of bars rather than a display of trophy heads would have gone much further to remind viewers of how far-reaching injustice, confinement and imprisonment can go. This play’s two principals do their best to rescue the script from its ponderous content and they are well-supported by the rest of the cast, but “A Human Being, of a Sort” is a play trying hard to be true to historical fact, and perhaps that reach is just too obvious for the theatre.