Historians know that books and archival papers are not dusty remnants of the past but living documents, eager to tell and show what they know of the worlds that created them. Rarely, though, has a playwright made historic words so literally come alive as in Juba, in which several members of the cast actually play 19th-century documents, giving life to lines written long ago.
The play is set in two places: a library and the mind of a historian (Fred Blader), who is searching for the truth about the life of a man who shaped the world of dance so radically that we take his influence for granted. William Henry Lane, known to the world as Juba, was the first African-American dancer to perform in the white minstrel shows of pre–Civil War America, and is credited with popularizing the style that became tap dancing.
Juba left no written evidence of himself, so we must rely on the words of those who observed him. The documents literally tell their stories, of Charles Dickens in New York City, of P.T. Barnum and the beginnings of his circus, and of other authors and their versions of Juba in the US and in England.
The play also becomes a commentary on the times and how little has changed between the 1840s and now. Back then, white minstrels painted themselves with blackface to both mock blacks and mimic their skills. Nowadays, even the Piscataqua Players performing at the Players’ Ring, known for experimental productions, cannot do this without fear of offending people. Instead, the actors use clear masks, but point directly at the audience when discussing racism, which still exists in New Hampshire, Maine, and everywhere.
The show glosses over an important blackface issue, though: The historical documents, at least those in the play, indicate that Juba’s first public appearance was actually in blackface. The minstrel shows were always all-white performances, and initially, it seems, putting a black man on stage to demonstrate his skill unmasked would have been unacceptable. Yet when Pierre R. Barreau comes on stage as Juba in his first performance, Barreau does not wear a mask.
A bit of directorial courage here would have demonstrated — beyond the power of all words — how humiliating it must have been for a black man to be masked to “fit in” precisely because he did not.
This play is not about race, however. Rather, it is about the challenges of drawing a picture of a man from the historical record. Large gaps in knowledge remain, including the manner of Juba’s death and the disposition of his remains. Documents can tell us much, but not everything.
The historian’s mind is hard at work assembling the pieces, and Blader is, too, though he spends almost the entire play seated at a desk. Acting behind a piece of furniture is difficult, but Blader’s expansive voice and gestures, as well as the depth of his facial expression, make up for the constraints laid on him by the set.
Some of the oddities of the play are evinced by the writing, which leaves unanswered a number of questions both historical and not, and which interjects two singing interludes for no apparent reason, though they are well voiced in this production.
The costumes are elegant and off-beat, especially for the documents, who wear 19th-century formalwear accented by lapels and bow-ties made of paper covered with printed words. However, the tiny costume differences intended to signal the multiple roles of Susan Turner (assistant librarian, Susan Bristol, and NYC Guide) make her arrival on stage confusing, as neither her voice nor demeanor changes much between the parts.
Some of the dialogue is obscured by being in an ill-moderated counterpoint, and some of the activity was missed in the performance I saw because of distracting fidgeting by cast members on stage but not involved in the scene. And in one group song, Turner had to work overtime, leaning back and forth to keep the men sitting on either side of her in tune.
Also, while most of the actors are not professionals, one flubbed line in last weekend’s performance couldn’t be ignored and in fact left me wondering what really happened to Juba. A date was misspoken, moving Juba’s death 24 years into the future, with later corrected lines giving the right year. Not until I was driving home did I figure out that the line was blown and not the history.
Particular performers are worth noting. Chris Rowse, in the part of Briggs, nailed all of his lines, and despite some obvious jitters from time to time, did very well on stage. And Barreau’s dancing is great. Though it’s more along the lines of traditional modern dance than a precursor of tap, Barreau should be credited with being the only black man in the show, the only character who did not speak, and the unmasked star of the show, just as Juba must have been. Further, Barreau managed something Juba never had to try: He avoided colliding with the very low Players’ Ring ceiling.
By Stephen Johnson with additional dialogue by Ron Ames, directed by Peggi McCarthy. With Fred Blader, Sandi Clark, Danny Gerstein, Peter Michaud, and Pierre R. Barreau. Piscataqua Players at the Players’ Ring, Portsmouth, NH, through Feb. 9. Call (603) 436-8123.