‘Uprising’ at MetroStage presents the difficult decisions facing freedom

‘Uprising’ at MetroStage presents the difficult decisions facing freedom

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Chris Banks)

As part of this fall’s ongoing Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which features more than 50 world premiere productions of plays by female playwrights, MetroStage artistic director Carolyn Griffin presents “Uprising,” a musical telling of the true story of noted abolitionist Osborne Perry Anderson — known as Ossie for the purposes of this production.

Set against the backdrop of a free black community during secession-era America, it reflects a time of grave uncertainty, even for freed blacks, who remain in fear of being kidnapped for bounty, taken south and sold back into slavery.

Ossie (Anthony Manough), on the run as the lone black survivor of John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, encounters Sal (Cynthia D. Barker), a freed slave who picks cotton to support a child she has taken in.

Ossie begs Sal not to turn him in, but she has plans for the future and is conflicted. Together, they represent two diametrically opposing choices for African-Americans of their day — insurrection or staying within the confines of the established racial system in an attempt to improve their lot. Sal chooses to work for meager wages on the plantation in the hopes of building a school for her adopted son, Freddie (Jeremiah Hasty), while Ossie is determined to crush the backbone of slavery by convincing others to join his movement.

The musical opens with the melancholy strains of Tuneman’s blues guitar, setting the tone for the conflicts to come. Conditions are relatively good for the men and women on this plantation just north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and their paternalistic boss, Whistle (Peter Boyer), often rewards them with bonuses.

When Sal finds Ossie in a field, hungry and cold, she rejects his pleas, refusing to feed him or offer shelter, afraid to jeopardize her freedom. But Ossie persists and Sal is fascinated by his eloquence, his ability to read and his courtly manners. “Words,” he tells her, “I’ve seen them heal a man.”

“Kill ‘em too!” insists Sal, who proves an equal verbal sparring partner to Ossie’s progressive views.

When Whistle learns of the insurrection and of Ossie’s escape, he becomes a cruel master. “I’m appalled at the lawlessness,” he barks, threatening his employees with reduced pay.

If they find the fugitive, they must turn him in. When Ossie tries to convince the others, “Liberate your souls!” and join the movement, Bo-Jack (Djob Lyons), who has hidden his love for Sal, and Ossie get into a brawl and all of their lives become endangered.

Musical interstices, composed by Theodis Ealey and directed by William Knowles, are soulful and uplifting, filled with the emotionally stirring strains of gospel, spirituals and plantation work chants and blended by this cast’s exquisite voices.

“Uprising” is brilliantly directed by Thomas W. Jones II, who has cast an impressive ensemble to present this powerful tale — Manough, Barker, Lyons, Doug Brown as Charlie, Naomi LaVette as Lottie, David Cole as Tuneman, the strolling minstrel, and the captivating Jeremiah Hasty making his stage debut as Sal’s boy, Freddie.

Expect the inimitable Roz White to resume the roles of Lottie and Miss Ellen May, and Enoch King to return as Bo-Jack as they end their roles in a national touring company and rejoin the cast.

Costume designer Janine Sunday captures the period perfectly with subtle colors that blend seamlessly with set/projection designer Robbie Hayes’ grainy-filtered backdrops of life in the Deep South.