The edgy EgoPo theater company is revisiting a classic with “Uncle Tom's Cabin: An Unfortunate History.” Director Lane Savadove hopes the audience leaves the play with a new take on Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel — and on the character of Uncle Tom.
“The judgment about the novel came mostly from the vaudeville performances of the book,” says Savadove. “Minstrel versions started to appear and white actors played the part of black characters in black face and the story became racially regressive.”
The phrase “Uncle Tom” evolved into a slur for a person — especially someone black — who’s overly subservient and submissive.
“To be an ‘Uncle Tom’ is somebody who acts how the white man wants him to act,” Savadore says. “That makes sense in the vaudeville performances, but that did not come from the novel. He is a Christian martyr. He stands up to the most evil man in the novel and he is willing to give his life and does give his life for his ideals and his values.”
“Any idea that Uncle Tom is weak is not true,” he adds.
Due to its numerous stagings during the vaudeville era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is the most performed work of American theater, according to Savadove. The novel itself is credited with helping to end slavery.
“I went back and I read the original novel, which I had never read, and it was amazing — suddenly it was this fantastic piece of American literature,” he says. “America had to change its very DNA for there to be racial harmony. Stowe was dreaming of a fully integrated post-racial society.”
The EgoPo staging of “Uncle Tom's Cabin: An Unfortunate History” opens this week at Plays & Players Theatre, closing out a season of vaudeville-themed works. The production is cross-racially cast, with white actors playing slaves and black actors playing slave masters.
“We want to wake up history a little bit,” Savadore says.
If you go
“Uncle Tom's Cabin: An Unfortunate History”
May 31-June 9, 8 p.m.
Previews May 29-30
Plays & Players Theatre
1714 Delancey Place
$20 to $32