Idris Goodwin resurrects a footnote from American history in this recounting of John Brown's failed raid.
Antiheroes have appeal. They take enormous risks, defying authorities to do good. The world needs more of them, and playwright Idris Goodwin and his colleagues at Jackalope Theatre tap into that thrilling energy with The Raid.
The subject of Goodwin’s tale is John Brown’s failed 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. With 21 coconspirators, Brown stormed a federal arsenal. Their goal: to arm freed slaves and lead them in an insurrection that would end American slavery.
Within a day they were defeated.
Rather than give a straightforward history lesson on Brown’s folly, Goodwin plays with theatricality and philosophy. With a nod to Our Town, an emcee—the Emperor—guides us through the journey to Harpers Ferry. Commenting on the action taking place, he leads the audience from Brown’s attempts at winning the support of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, to Brown’s wrathful tirades—outbursts that grow increasingly fanatic, increasingly possessed by the idea that God Himself gave him this emancipatory mission.
While following Brown on his downward spiral may seem interesting, Goodwin’s philosophizing text grows stale. Coupled with Kaiser Ahmed’s direction, the actors become shallow mouthpieces uttering platitudes rather than men arguing over their deepest convictions. With the exception of Ron Wells’s steadfast John Brown, who grows more zealous as he tries to build support for the raid, the production becomes static and full of hot air.
That is, until the raid. When the play finally arrives at it, the Harpers Ferry raid can best be described as an overly convulsive dramatic seizure. It has all the mayhem of a raid, but none of the fun as names, dates and events get shouted at the audience while actors run amok. The people and ideas at the heart of this story get lost in the confusion.
Within all of this, Jared Bellot and Toya Turner bring levity and life to the production. As Harriet Tubman, Turner brings much needed humor to an often overly pious show. Bellot’s Emperor brings strength and grace to The Raid—and in his closing moments, delivers lines that perhaps show the hand of the Goodwin’s intentions. No matter how misguided, there is heroism in what antiheros attempt.
Jackalope Theatre at the Broadway Armory. By Idris Goodwin. Directed by Kaiser Zaki Ahmed. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.