Review: Blacks’ freedom a mirage in ‘Safe House’ in Berkeley

The play is called “Safe House,” but no one in it is ever allowed to feel safe. Not to be confused with Geetha Reddy’s play of the same name that San Francisco Playhouse premiered in 2010, the tense drama by Keith Josef Adkins now playing at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company is about free people of color living in 1843 Kentucky, a time and place in which freedom is very, very relative.

“Safe House” premiered in 2014 in the playwright’s native Cincinnati and now makes its West Coast premiere at Aurora.

Born free but constantly having to carry their papers to prove it, the Pedigrew family’s movements are strictly restricted by the fearsome, unseen local sheriff because they got caught trying to help a man escape slavery a couple of years ago. (Somewhat confusingly, all the other free people of color were kicked out of the county as a result, with only the offending Pedigrews and one other family allowed to stay.)

Immaculately dressed in Callie Floor’s tasteful period costumes, Addison Pedigrew is a skilled shoemaker who’s tired of going door to door scrounging for jobs and aspires to be allowed to set up shop in his home and have people come to him like white tradespeople do. Played with palpable agitation by David Everett Moore, Addison is all smiles and deference with his white neighbors and overbearingly demanding with his family — his impulsive brother Frank (Lance Gardner, simmering with resentment), who keeps rebelling against the way they have to live, and his no-nonsense Aunt Dorcas (touchingly heavy-hearted and quietly unforgiving Dawn L. Troupe). When another fugitive (a panicky and turbulent Jamella Cross) shows up at the house looking for help, it throws the family members into conflict and puts the life they’ve built in jeopardy, throwing into stark relief the question of how much Addison is willing to sacrifice to succeed.

Director L. Peter Callender keeps the tension high throughout the production. Danger is never far from the door, even if all we ever see are relatively friendly faces. Cassidy Brown is as nervously shifty as he is pleasantly chatty as Bracken, the white sheriff’s deputy, who fancies himself part of the family but can never be as much at ease as he pretends. Dezi Soley is a transparently conflicted Clarissa, the neighbor entangled in a romantic triangle with the Pedigrew brothers. (One aggressively pursues her while she clearly prefers the other.)

There’s always a gut-wrenching feeling watching the play that something horrible is going to happen. It’s really more of a certainty, the only question being what that terrible thing is going to be — who’s going to betray whom, and how. When that twist comes, it may not be what the viewer feared but something anticipated and almost certainly worse.

As stories about African-Americans in the mid-1800s go, “Safe House” lets the audience off the hook relatively easily. There are any number of stories more grueling and people much worse off than this family in that era. Still, at a time when many Bay Area viewers may already be on edge with worry about the future of basic human rights in this country, the sense of the Pedigrews constantly having to keep their heads down and placate their white neighbors just to survive and retain their limited liberty strikes an awfully unnerving chord.

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- Sam Hurwitt
BANG / San Jose Mercury News
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