Story: Hannah Louise Ballard has lived her entire life in slavery to a white man who owns an estate in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Late in 1859 the young woman marries another slave named Moses at a ceremony presided over by their owner, Master James.
Despite the conditions, Hannah looks forward to a life with Moses. The Civil War is looming, however, and Master James is succumbing to a fatal illness. He reassures Hannah that she’ll be taken care of after he passes and that she won’t be separated from Moses.
Sure enough, Master James dies and, contrary to what he said, the provisions in his will state that his slaves will be separated between his surviving family members, including his wife and his nephew, John Allen. Hannah and her friend Malinda are sent to work for Master James’ widow while Moses is put in the custody of John Allen.
Moses vows to escape and asks Hannah to join him, but she is fearful and remains behind. The Civil War rages on, with John Allen forced into conscription while his business flounders. Besieged by the bank, John Allen sells several of his slaves, including Hannah and Malinda, to a plantation owner in Georgia, oblivious to their pleas for mercy.
While the United States remains in civil war, Moses makes his way to Canada where he earns a living as a blacksmith, thanks in part to the interest of a publisher who wants to tell Moses’ story to Canadians and Europeans.
Meanwhile, another slave named Henry strikes up a friendship with Hannah and Malinda on the Georgia plantation. After the Civil War ends, the trio make their way back to Maryland to help Hannah in her search for Moses and the infant son she had been forced to leave behind.
As her separation from Moses continues for several years, Hannah finally agrees to Henry’s wedding proposal. They invite Malinda to stay with them on land Henry has purchased to farm, and begin to raise their own family. Moses, however, continues his own quest to be reunited with Hannah. Despite all of their travails, and the years and thousands of miles that separate them, will he find her?
Highlights: The Black Rep closes its 2017-18 season with the world premiere of a moving, profound and magnificent drama written by Nikkole Salter. Searing performances by an excellent ensemble under Ron Himes’ astute direction make Torn Asunder a poignant and unforgettable saga.
Other Info: Salter based her two-act drama on research done by Professor Heather Andrea Williams in her book, Help Me to Find My People, “true stories of newly emancipated African-Americans trying to overcome the ever-present vestiges of chattel slavery to reconnect with their families,” according to The Black Rep news release. Salter was commissioned by Williams and Kathy A. Perkins to write the script.
Torn Asunder is presented on a beautifully atmospheric set designed by Dunsi Dai, with a sloping walkway at stage left ripe with symbolism and living quarters at stage right which serve as the home of Master James, the Canadian publisher and other scenes.
The background projection design conceived by Geordy van Es is filled with rows of shelves in John Allen’s general store or fields where Henry, Hannah and Malinda toil away while the Civil War explodes around them. It’s all hauntingly illuminated by Perkins’ rich and evocative lighting design and filled with numerous props furnished by Kate Slovinski which underscore the story.
Kareem Deanes’ evocative sound design is filled with songs of the era, both African-American tunes sung by workers in the fields and also by popular songs of the era. Daryl Harris’ costumes range from the utilitarian threads for slaves to the fancy attire favored by the Southern ruling class.
Himes elicits superior performances by his truly outstanding troupe of players, who make Torn Asunder pulsate with affecting emotions as well as depicting the tortured history of the nation, especially in the South. When Moses is asked by a Canadian, e.g., whether he had any “nice” masters, he replies, “That’s a question only asked by someone who has never been a slave.”
LaShunda Gardner delivers a heart-wrenching portrayal of Hannah, a good-hearted soul whose motivation throughout is to devote her life to others, searching for the bonds of a strong family life against all odds. Her wails of anguish against injustice and torment permeate the spacious Edison Theatre throughout the nearly three-hour performance, a time which flies by under Himes’ masterful pacing.
There is wonderful work by Myke Andrews as Moses, who is willing to take a risk to obtain the freedom he yearns to experience, regardless of any tragic consequences, and a man who is equal to Hannah in his devotion to his spouse.
Brandi Threatt is outstanding as Hannah’s devoted friend Malinda, who is not above using her wiles with the lascivious slave owners to help herself as best she can and who looks out for the less practical Hannah with a sisterly love. Carl Overly Jr. is excellent as the jovial, realistic Henry, who loves Hannah but also understands her commitment to her husband Moses and is willing to help her regardless of however hopeless his devotion may be.
Graham Emmons shows every side of the manipulative John Allen, who chafes at the injustices he believes are inflicted upon him by his own father but who shows a callous and cruelly indifferent side when considering the plight of Hannah, Malinda and others.
Rounding out the excellent cast is Alan Knoll, who brings poise and polish to a number of smaller roles, making each one distinctive and memorable, including Master James, the French Canadian publisher, a venal Georgian plantation owner, an unfeeling executor, a bureaucratic Freedman’s Bureau Agent and others.
Torn Asunder is a remarkable piece of theater, elevated to epic status by Salter’s marvelous prose and a cadre of searing, unforgettable performances by Himes’ accomplished players.
Play: Torn Asunder
Company: The Black Rep
Venue: Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. at Washington University
Dates: April 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29
Tickets: $15-$45; contact 534-3810 or www.theblackrep.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Kathy Perkins