In VS., the second play of TheatreFirst’s new season, everyone chases freedom — and nobody finds it.
The 90-minute production is set during the Revolutionary War, and the “Brown Bess” muskets used by British soldiers is an apt metaphor for the production: It’s front-loaded with a freedom-for-all message and contains moments of striking drama, but it also often misfires, the play at once a shaky boardwalk and an indication of a hopeful future for artistic director Jon Tracy’s revamped theater troupe.
Every theatre-goer wants TheatreFirst to survive and prosper. With a focus on equality and diversity — the staff, board, and artistic teams are two-thirds people-of-color and at least half female-identified — the Berkeley company is inclusive and poised to be a disrupter. And, importantly, overlooked stories such as VS. might not make it to the stage at all if not for companies like TheatreFirst.
VS. tells the tale of Tye (Edward Ewell), a real-life slave who was owned by John Corlies, a Quaker who whipped his slaves and refused them the right to learn to read and write, or to be freed at age 21, as was the Quaker’s custom.
Enraged, Tye flees his home and family to enlist in the “Ethiopians,” a Black regiment of soldiers who joined the redcoats during the American Revolution. Left behind are his aunt, Martha (KT Masala), and his equally embittered cousin, Tilly (Tierra Allen).
The two women, in their separate ways, have scratched out a kind of quasi-freedom. Martha chooses not to raise a ruckus and a life of internal-independence in the face of white prejudice. “Only a fool argues with another fool,” she warns her daughter.
Tilly is technically a free woman, but finds only partial freedom by secretly teaching Tye to read before he runs away and openly instructs the slaves of more “enlightened” owners. The world, Tilly repeatedly admonishes Tye, no longer “has room for a man can’t read.”
Even so, despite her knowledge and obvious intellect, she must bend and act subservient when Sarah (Juliet Heller) presses her to vouch publicly to owner Corlies that she did not aid in Tye’s disappearance.
While on the run, Tye meets Salem (Cameron Matthews), another Black man intent on joining the British to fight the colonial patriots and gain his liberty. The two men tussle, then band together despite their differences.
Tye travels only in a straight line, and he is all pain, rage, and confusion. Salem is jovial and content, always looking for silver linings. Inevitably, they split, as Tye rises in the ranks to become Col. Tye, and Salem goes turncoat, digging ditches and chopping trees for the patriot enslavers.
As the war spins into dissolution and the British lose battles, Tye returns to the Corlies’ farm to exercise revenge. Arriving with a plan to kill his former owner brings him face-to-face with Tilly. She’s there to prevent his act, and, in the play’s climax, to break through to his heart.
Written by Cleavon Smith, with music by Stephanie Prentice and Reggie D. White, director Rotimi Agbabiaka pulled fervor out of the actors’ performances, which were consistent — although the singing, especially during the final song, was not a highlight.
The music — performed by percussion, piano and guitar — was most effective and lacked only in that it wasn’t used more often.
Artistic Director Tracy, in opening remarks at the start of the evening, announced a surprising option for TheatreFirst ticket holders: Audiences are invited to return during the show’s run — free of charge — to see how VS. develops. With time and fine-tuning, there’s hope that the production might breathe with clearer force.