THE SLAVE, Hostage Theatre Company, at Voltaire. Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) wrote this play in 1964, one year after his masterwork Dutchman, in which a black man is ritualistically murdered on a subway car by indifferent whites. The Slave reverses the crime: blacks are winning a race war, and Walker Vessels–a poet heading the Black Liberation Army–crosses the front to invade the home of his former wife, a white woman now married to the white professor who was Walker’s mentor. Back to claim his daughters, Walker swills vodka and engages his hostages in a muddled debate on the difficulty of balancing abstract hate with concrete love or idealism with action, and on the danger of pitying the people you oppress.
Group Theatre director Harold Clurman called Dutchman “angry” and The Slave “rabid.” The whites in it are revealed to be weak and racist, though Vessels is faulted for destroying his art with his anger. The dialogue (which contains gratuitous homophobic slurs) is window dressing for the obligatory violence. Baraka can’t seem to decide whether to go for the visceral or the cerebral. Whichever, the play preys astutely on liberal guilt, offering mainly righteous ranting and turgid rhetoric.
Samuel Jordan’s staging strikes more heat than light. As Vessels, Jordan is intimidating rather than messianic, playing the poet with stentorian bluster and making Mike Speller and Lisa Dowda pallid foils to his self-destruction.