Can social justice happen without militancy? Can ideals of equality become real without resort to violence? These questions gnaw at the mind during Theater Alliance’s powerfully eloquent staging of Idris Goodwin’s The Raid, an imagined confrontation between two icons of Abolitionist history—John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Both those men dedicated their lives to ending slavery, but they advocated and acted upon markedly differing tactics.
Brown as played by Nicklas Aliff is riveting in his hot-headed intensity. A white man, he has a plan to raid the Harper’s Ferry national armory in order to supply guns to an army of black men who, he envisions, will hole up in the Alleghenies and launch sorties to free slaves by force. Brown’s secretary and second-in-command, Henry Kagi, also white, is anxious that their plot will be discovered, and in Josh Adams’s fervent portrayal he is an arresting bundle of nerves.
In a quarry late at night, Brown and Kagi come to rendezvous with Frederick Douglass, whom Brown wants to persuade to lead the black army. They first meet Douglass’s close associate, a taciturn man nicknamed the Emperor (a sturdy Dylan J. Flemming), who like Douglass was an escaped slave. When Douglass arrives, in the dignified bearing of Marquis D. Gibson’s magnetic portrayal, the playwright raises the stakes:
John: Frederick— You must know—slavery will not end without bloodshed.
Frederick: America would demolish the Alleghenies before it submits to the will of a terrorist band.
The tactical lines of debate become ever more sharply drawn.
John: Where reason fails — Force is necessary.
Frederick: When profit is involved—it only means blood, gallons and gallons, piles of bones—innocent people—
John: I don’t intend to harm any innocent people.
Frederick: The innocent are always harmed.
The Raid is staged in the round, as befits its politically personal purpose. On the walls Scenic Designer Jessica Cancino has mounted huge abstract montages of ripped cardboard, as if detritus after strife. The seven actors in the cast enter familiarly, addressing the audience as themselves and taking seats among us until they perform in scenes.
Besides Aliff, Adams, Fleming, and Gibson, the cast includes Ensemble members Tiffany Byrd as a tough-minded Harriet Tubman, Robert Bowen Smith as a youthful John Brown Jr., and Moira Todd as Mahala Doyle, grieving widow of a man who died in John Brown’s ill-fated raid—all of whose performances seen up close emit a conviction that goes beyond creating a character and resembles more the presence of a truthful self.
Director Colin Hovde paces the show with almost dreamlike segues from place to place and time to time; and movement choreographed by himself, Cliff Williams III, Robert Bowen Smith, and the Ensemble mesmerizes. Lighting Designer Megan Thrift and Sound Designer Kevin Alexander give dramatic specificity to the scene shifts, yet the overall effect is less docudrama and more a kind of communal mental event through which we may weigh our point-by-counterpoint relationship to its through-line of competing values. Costume Designer Danielle Preston has the cast in contemporary clothing suggestive of their roles in the story, which enhances the impression that we are all of us in this together. In a sense, the setting of the play is the interior of the conscience each person brings to it.
The play does not skirt the ironic fact that it was the white man Brown who prepared for armed struggle and the black man Douglass who on principle would not go there. The play also tacitly acknowledges the fact that what each person brings to their disagreement will be shaped by their own experience of race in America. For instance,
Harriet: White men get wide breadth of choice, but black folks are born into war. No choice. It starts the moment we’re born. You don’t learn to fight, you’ll die.
And this crackling exchange:
John: It shouldn’t be me. It should be you. It must be an ex-slave that leads his own people out of slavery. Like Moses led the Hebrews! I know you, Frederick. I really know what’s in your heart!
Frederick: You know what’s in my book, John. You have NO idea what’s in my heart. You may feel for my plight, the emperor’s plight—you may feel it deep in the purgatory of your being but you will NEVER know what’s in my heart.
John: Because I am white?
Frederick: Not because your skin is white. But your way is white. Quick to grab weapons, when there is any threat to what you consider yourself entitled to. A black man is born fighting the sand in the hourglass. We seek life. We seek peace. A freedom to live as you seek chaos and anarchy.
For anyone with an activist bent, The Raid cuts into conflicting questions of tactics like a theatrical scalpel. “A movement requires—small and large—all manner of tangible and theoretical contributions,” says Douglas. But exactly which contribution will be one’s own life’s work?
The Raid is no armchair meditation about means to ends. It is, rather, an immersive engagement in the particulars of one historical struggle as a way to dive deep into the metadrama that befalls every social justice movement: whether to rely on reason or force, whether to press one’s principles from within institutions or without, whether to use the law or break it, whether to risk something or everything.
No one who wants their life to make a social-justice difference will leave Theater Alliance’s The Raid unenlightened or unmoved.
Running Time: About 90 minutes with no intermission.
The Raid plays through March 18, 2018, at Theater Alliance, performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-241-2539 purchase them online.