Patience of Nantucket
Robert Johnson Jr.’s harrowing Patience of Nantucket reminds audiences that personal ambition sometimes knows no bounds even to sacrificing another individual to its ends. The tragic life of Patience Cooper, a black woman of early 19th century Nantucket, is a horrific chapter from history although the sort of dirty work that ruins this woman’s life goes on today as well. She became the scapegoat for the political aims of a man whose personal qualifications don’t bare much scrutiny.
Marie Guinier gives an acute and intensely moving portrait of a woman railroaded into a barren prison
cell that squeezes her sanity as surely as it fences in her movements. With step after measured step paced out in her tiny cell, she descends into a hell that even her minister and faith cannot dispel.
The strong production from Up You Mighty Race performing arts company continues through September 23 at the Plaza Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center For the Arts, 539 Tremont St. in the South End.
Director/Producer Akiba Abaka is a very young theater artist only in her early twenties, yet she manages to not only cultivate extraordinary performances from her seasoned actors but at the same time hold the reins firmly enough to achieve fine ensemble work. She has ensured that Johnson’s play has clarity without becoming didactic.
Abaka is helped in establishing the Stephen King ordinariness of a story that becomes really scary by a chillingly realistic set from Peter Calao.
UMass Boston historian Johnson, who is also an attorney, came upon accounts of Patience’s trial and sentencing when he was serving as the director of the James Bradford Ames Fellowship, which supports research and publication of black and Cape Verdean history on Nantucket. He has shaken off the dust of the ages from those pages with a powerful dramatization of that pitiable racist episode on an island once renowned for whaling and basket weaving but now regarded as a playground for the wealthy. The courtroom scene goes on a trifle long but the scenes Johnson really flies with are the exchanges he only supposes happened which are gripping and make sense-the gold standard for historical fiction.
The outstanding cast, a mix of New York and Boston based actors involve us deeply in Patience’s story. Joe Lee Baker Bay gives a powerful performance as the Nantucket minister counseling Patience who began life as a slave on a Virginia plantation until he breaks for freedom. One of the story’s ironies is that Patience herself was born a free woman, one of a sizable community of black citizens on Nantucket.
Mary Elizabeth Rutkowski is excellent as a woman of lesser means than Patience who becomes Patience’s friend when doing time herself for petty crimes carried out in desperation to feed her children.
Ed Peed gives a wonderfully multidimensional portrayal of the town’s single jail keeper whose job keeping Patience under lock and key means he is as penned up as she and as likely as she to gradually lose touch with family and the rest of the people in town. Dosha Ellis Beard as Trilona Pompey nearly takes over the courtroom scene with her thinly veiled distrust of white justice.
Chief among the Patience’s adversaries is the segregationist Nathanial Fitzgerald in a well tempered performance from Bern Budd who never crosses the line into melodrama with a role that practically elicits hisses and boos. His agent of destruction, Mark Salom, is a Rhett Butler gone sour, played by Jeff Gill with a frothy mix of smarminess and patent leather sophistication.
The show, which opens the fall season for Boston Center for the Arts, is performed Thursday through a Sunday matinee with a special Weds. Sept. 20 pay as you can night. For more information you can go to www.bostontheatrescene.com or call 617-983-8600.
Through September 23 at the Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theater, 539 Tremont Street
Boston, MA. Schedule: Thursday 7:30pm / Friday 8:00pm / Saturday 4:00pm & 8:00pm / Sunday 4:00pm
Prices: $27.50, Adults; $22.50, Students & Seniors: 617-983-8600. For more information visit the the Up You Mighty Race website.