Does history create identity? Should the distant past influence a person’s belief system? Is there a single concrete, definitive version of history, or are there multiple accounts, depending on who’s telling the story? These, among others, are questions TimeLine Theatre Company asks in its current production, A House With No Walls. In portraying the problems of race relations that have spanned over 200 years of American history, A House With No Walls delivers a flawless account of the current racial issues in society, leaving no avenue of opinion or discussion concealed.
The play centers on the construction of an American Museum of Liberty on the grounds of George Washington’s home and slave quarters. Salif Camara, played by A. C. Smith, is an outspoken political activist who protests the museum’s erection, arguing that building a museum to symbolize freedom on the same spot where human beings were chained—and not acknowledging that fact—is just plain preposterous. While staking a banner in the ground that reads “Avenging our Enslaved Ancestors” and instigating crowds with phrases like “No more lies!” through a tightly gripped megaphone, Camara makes it clear that by building the museum on any terms different from his own, “it will stand on a foundation of lies.”
Cadence Lane, played by Amber Starr Friendly, is a black female and a conservative intellectual who believes that Camara’s tactics prompt unnecessary hatred and stifle any kind of progress the country could make in race relations. As a historian, Cadence points out that Camara uses false evidence to instigate the black public and proliferate the white man’s guilt. Camara, in turn, sees Cadence’s attacks on him as concrete proof that she is a mere puppet for white America. Acting as a go-between for these two characters is Allen Rosen (Steve O’Connell), a white historian who feels caught in the middle of the debate. While he recognizes the inconsistencies in Camara’s argument, he feels he has no right to speak up because he isn’t black himself; moreover, Rosen fears that people will view him as racist and insensitive if he takes a public stance against Camara.
Writer Thomas Gibbons and director Louis Contey demonstrate they have thought long and hard about issues involving race. Many times when a play’s focus is political, the message is one-sided and the play is told in such a biting fashion that it forces the audience to either agree or feel ostracized. This is not the case with A House With No Walls. Contey presents race relations as a multifaceted and complex issue, in which each character brings well thought out, credible arguments to the table. A House With No Walls takes on the role of a theatrical forum in which arguments about race are presented and debated in their full scope. The play’s forum style not only informs the audience of the credence of varying viewpoints, but also invites the spectator to think more openly about race. Few productions so clearly encapsulate the complexities of racial issues in such a balanced and thorough manner.
A House with No Walls clearly wants its discussion of race to extend beyond the theater’s walls. Whether you agree with Camara that slavery was too devastating to be forgotten or with Cadence’s view that playing the victim card only fetters the future of black Americans and perpetrates unjustified white guilt, this play will first agree with you and then challenge you to think outside your scope of experience in the matter. In the closing moments of the play, the dialogue between Camara and Cadence poses this final question: If white America did publicly apologize for slavery and all of its racial consequences—in essence, laying the foundation on which to build a common American identity—would black America accept the apology, forgive the years of oppression, and build the walls to that house? This question, and others like it throughout the play, just might compel you to grab coffee with a fellow theatergoer after the show and continue the debate.