Keith Josef Adkins has written an admirable play that tells the tale of two free brothers of color in 1843’s Northern Kentucky. I use the word admirable because the plight of the very different brothers — one with small goals for the future and one with brave principles — brings to light the dark and largely unexplored cruel treatment of free people of color before the Civil War. The impetus for Safe House, which is playing at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, is Adkins’ extensive genealogical research, which traced his roots back to a mixed-race couple who lived before the American Revolution and settled in Northern Kentucky, where one line of their free Black descendants were shoemakers.
In Safe House, all the ambitious controlling older brother Addison Pedigrew (David Everett Moore) wants from life is to operate a shoe business from his house, rather than having to be an itinerant cobbler, knocking on white families’ backdoors with his tools and shoes. But since his free-spirited younger brother Frank (Lance Gardner) was caught trying to help a slave escape to Liberia two years before the action of the play, the local sheriff, represented by his underling Bracken (Cassidy Brown), placed the family on even more onerous restrictions than the routine indignities that were foisted on free people of color in that time and place.
Thus, Addison sees Frank as the source of his inability to achieve his aspirations. The undercurrent of hostility between the brothers is made more complex since Addison has decided to make neighbor Clarissa (Dezi Soléy) his wife, despite suspecting that she and Frank are enjoying an intimate relationship.
The sympathetic hearts of Frank and their live-in Aunt Dorcas (Dawn L. Troupe) go out to a runaway slave, Roxie (Jamella Cross) who appears at their door desperate for help to escape to Liberia. When Addison’s singular ambition collides with Frank’s and Dorcas’ compassion, the family turns against itself in a dramatic conclusion.
The Republic of Liberia, where more than 15,000 enslaved and free Black Americans relocated between 1822 and the start of the Civil War, is presented as an Eden of freedom and happiness. In one of the most genuine emotional moments of the play, as Dorcas describes the country as one in which people of color can laugh as loud and as long as they wish, we hear the peals of joyful laughter (Sound Designer and Composer, Chris Houston). The importance of being able to laugh without fear illuminates in an eloquent and evocative way the constraints suffered then by Black Americans.
The Aurora Theatre’s deep-thrust stage with the audience sitting on three sides is “difficult and challenging for an actor and director,” said L. Peter Callender, noted actor (“Master Harold” …and the boys) and first-time Aurora director. And although Callender is more than up to the challenge, it is a bit disconcerting to see the actors moving furniture in each of the 16 or 17 scene changes.
I liked Safe House a lot. It’s a rewarding production, with convincing acting. While Safe House is an emotionally wrought drama, there is a touch of clunkiness in the writing and presentation. Perhaps Adkins is trying a bit too hard to educate his audience instead of allowing us to absorb the historical background and import of the story in a more natural way. Thus said, I do warmly recommend Safe House as a courageous and meaningful drama, and one that reminds us of the vital need to maintain civil rights and personal freedom for all people in 21st-century America.