Sunday, February 8, 2009

447. Belknap Theater Visit and a Review

Last night I was unexpectedly invited to attend a play with my friend Chris. We had just finished a dinner celebrating his recent hiring to a new position. Another friend of his was in the cast, a young lady I had seen in a role last summer at Shakespeare in the Park, properly the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. Before we arrived for the play, we were joined by another friend who is a student at the University of Louisville. The play was performed at the historic Belknap Theater, on the island between 2nd and 3rd streets, just south of Cardinal Boulevard, which older Louisvillians sometimes still refer to as Avery Avenue.

The play, commissioned by the University for Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, was written by Minneapolis based actor and playwright Carlyle Brown, who has also been commissioned for other Louisville area productions. Its title was Abraham Lincoln and Uncle Tom at the White House. The play borrowed from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in the first act, and used the second act for an imagined dialogue between Uncle Tom, played by Cecil Washington, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Obadiah Ewing-Roush. While the history was intact, the play itself lacked. There was only so much the actors could do with the work they were given. Chris' actress friend, Tiffany LaVoie, played two different roles, one in each act, including, in the latter, that of Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln, the belle of Lexington who was well-known to be more than a little off-balance.

Two lines for me stood out, and neither because of the historicity of the play. In one scene Uncle Tom is begging the president to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, who responds "I'm waiting to do it, I'm wanting to do it, I'm willing to do it . . . " or something like that. The words seems to have come straight from Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady, one of my favorite plays in all of theaterdom, in response to a response from Professor Higgins as to why Eliza is at the professor's house. Another point in the play had Uncle Tom explaining he didn't know how he came to be in the White House, that he was just a character in Mrs. Beecher Stowe's play seeking an outlet. That is related to the premise of Luigi Pirandello's 1921 work Six Characters in Search of an Author. That's about all I can say about the play without being overly critical.

So, instead, let me write a short bit about the Belknap Theater or "The Playhouse" as it is called on the University campus. Randy, the U of L student with us, said the playhouse looked like a church. There is good reason. It was built in the 1870s to serve as a chapel as part of the House of Refuge, which served as the Jefferson County Poor House or Children's Asylum, as they were sometimes called back then. The House of Refuge was located where, at the time, Third Street came to a dead end. About 100 years after its construction, it was dismantled to make way for the William F. Ekstrom Library and relocated to its present location, north of the Confederate Monument, in what is now called Freedom Park. As it was rebuilt it was expanded to serve a number of needs of the University's Theater Arts Department.

I attended events at the Playhouse quite a bit shortly after its relocation with friends of mine who had been students in the very early days of the Youth Performing Arts School, a block north of the site on Second Street. Last night's return was my first in nearly three decades, as best I remember. My ticket, by the way, indicated I was seated in Row K, Seat 105. No one else would have noticed, but that happens to be the Jefferson County precinct number, K-105, where the Playhouse is located.

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The Archives at Milepost 606


Louisville, Kentucky, United States
Never married, liberal Democrat, born in 1960, opinionated but generally pleasant, member of the Episcopal Church. Graduate of Prestonia Elementary, Durrett High, and Spalding University; the first two now-closed Jefferson County Public Schools, the latter a very small liberal arts college in downtown Louisville affiliated with the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. My vocation and avocation is politics. My favorite pastime is driving the backroads of Kentucky and southern Indiana, visiting small towns, political hangouts, courthouses, churches, and cemeteries. You are welcome to ride with me sometime.