“Consider us as a people press’d at our backs with Indians, in our Bowills with our servants.” —Virginia governor William Berkeley, 1667
A story goes with the new Victory Garden Theater show. Several stories, actually, but this one concerns playwright Marcus Gardley, whose A Wonder in My Soul was scheduled to premiere in the theater’s spring slot—which is to say, now.
According to an interview in Playbill, Gardley felt blocked as he worked on the script’s third draft last December. “I was watching the news about what’s going on in Ferguson, and Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin,” he explains, referring to some of the latest flash points in America’s ongoing race war, “and all of these people are stewing in my spirit.” After a “heart-to-heart” with Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew, Gardley decided he had to set aside A Wonder in My Soul and start in on another piece of work that would address the issues preying on his mind.
That piece turned out to be An Issue of Blood: An Historical Parable, currently running at Victory Gardens under Yew’s direction.
For all the urgency suggested by Gardley’s comments, An Issue of Blood isn’t set in the present and doesn’t deal directly with Ferguson or Garner or Martin. It doesn’t even take place in the United States, per se, but sends us back more than three centuries to Bacon’s Rebellion, which roiled the crown colony of Virginia for a few months in 1676. Led by Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy English merchant’s wayward son, the rebellion pitted various kinds of outsiders against a corrupt landed elite personified by Governor Berkeley, he of the “press’d Bowills.”
Virginia’s labor force at that time was dominated by indentured servants: people, white and black, who’d contracted out their labor to a given landowner for a set number of years on the expectation of being able to buy their own farms when their contracts expired. Trouble was, the number of former servants looking for a stake exceeded the amount of available land. Would-be settlers started pushing out along the frontier, which put them in conflict with Native American tribes. Among other things, the rebels wanted more protection from Berkeley. They also tried solving the problem themselves by attacking and attempting to dispossess local tribes, including at least one with whom the colonists had been living peaceably. Berkeley was defiant (extravagantly so: when Bacon threatened him with a gun, the septuagenarian governor “bared his breast” and told him to go ahead and shoot). Though Bacon’s men managed to burn Jamestown to the ground, the rebellion was ultimately suppressed. The powers that be consolidated their authority, partly by toughening the laws on indenture—a move that helped grease the way for institutional slavery.
Gardley dispenses with a lot of this history in An Issue of Blood—most disappointingly by ignoring the rebels’ crimes against Native Americans—in order to pursue his narrative objective, which is to identify Bacon’s Rebellion as the moment when race became America’s weapon of choice for maintaining privilege. To that end he gives us Negro Mary, an old widow who’s parlayed a speck of land into a burgeoning tobacco plantation. Fearing a mysterious curse, Negro Mary has kept her son, John, far away in London, where he’s been brokering her crop and living in luxury. John’s unexpected return to Virginia with a working-class Irish fiancee named Calla sets the play down a path that won’t lead anybody anywhere good.
Despite Gardley’s pristine thematic intention—not to mention the support provided by Yew’s simple, atmospheric staging and a vivid cast led by Lizan Mitchell as an incantatory Negro Mary—An Issue of Blood falls into greater and greater confusion as it goes on. Over the course of about 100 minutes the playwright can’t resist throwing in loads of earnest speeches on multiple subjects, along with gestures toward religion, mysticism, and even some kind of numerology involving the repetition of the number 13.
At their most extreme, as when the earth itself breathes out the phrase “work me” a la Field of Dreams, these loose bits amount to so much hokum. But they also suggest an O’Neillian notion of the tragic nature of the American soil itself, which can’t be ameliorated by appeals to freedom or justice. More important, they contribute to the sense of An Issue of Blood as less a play than an utterance—the effusion of an artist who can’t help but recognize the variousness of his subject and can’t bring himself to reduce it to a single, simple formula. Maybe the messiness would’ve fallen away if Gardley had had more than four months to hone his script; as things stand, the messiness is the greatest thing about it. v