Masks, shadow puppetry, three languages and a talking bear – Oscar winner Tim Robbins’s “Break the Whip” is an ambitious, albeit unconventional, theatrical attempt at re-examining American social history.
Inspired by Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” the play dismisses historical favorites John Smith and Pocahontas in favor of “the anonymous, the indentured and enslaved, the muted voices, the vanquished.”
The 23-person masked cast revolves around the colliding cultures and social hierarchies of English settlers, the Native American Paspahegh tribe and Bantu African slaves in 17th century Jamestown. The large cast allows for several subplots, but the main storyline centers on the character Quino. A socially conscious male servant, Quino later goes on to have an interracial liaison with his master’s slave. After being brutally punished for their forbidden tryst, Quino, his lover and several other slaves escape from their master and seek refuge with the Paspahegh tribe.
One of the play’s great triumphs is effortlessly weaving three different languages and the use of screened subtitles without appearing awkward or cumbersome. Chapman’s history professor Carolyn Vieira-Martinez is credited for providing translation for the Angolan section of the script.
Another success is the visually stunning usage of props. Simple blue cloths are transformed into glistening streams while screens come alive with shadow puppetry depicting each culture’s story of creation.
The acting is to a high standard as well. Although the masks sometimes make it difficult to detect exact emotions, several of the actors are able to inject humor into such a seriously-themed play. The slave master and his wife provide some much-appreciated ironic wit and comedic relief.
However, where the play truly falls short is its ongoing message. To say the message is preachy would be a vast understatement.
The continued forced symbolism of the white men as hypocritical monsters versus the spiritually and culturally enlightened Native Americans and Africans soon becomes tiring. It borders on patronizing and ultimately brings nothing new to the table.
Another key failing is the ending. The three cultures coming together and making relative peace may be touching to some but seems somewhat contradictory to history and the play’s original intentions.
The play seeks to provide a historically aware agenda, yet this overly simplified, sentimental ending is more of a Hollywood fantasy than any sort of viable realism.
“Break the Whip” plays now through Nov. 20 at the Ivy Substation Theater in Culver City.