A HUMAN BEING, OF A SORT – Williamstown Theatre Festival
A HUMAN BEING, OF A SORT is high in concept and low in drama. The based-in-fact premise is fascinating and disturbingly freakish, almost unbelievable: In 1906, Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy, was exhibited at The Bronx Zoo. Playwright Jonathan Payne creates a fictionalized account of the relationship between Ota Benga and a Black zookeeper. What binds Ota and his “attendant” Smokey, a Black convict at the end of a three-year prison term is, in exchange for guaranteeing Ota’s good behavior, Smokey will be set free from his sentence.
The set, handsomely designed by Lawrence E. Moten III, is a half rotund of paneled walls adorned with more than two dozen taxidermied animals, which suggests a private men’s club, hunting lodge or academic salon, with a centered large steel cage which imprisons Ota. The (white) zoo director, Mr. Hornaday, sees Ota as a legitimate ethnological display; he regards Smokey, whom he’s taken on with some risk through a convict leasing program, with noblesse oblige. A trio of Black clergy seems as outraged about how the Darwinism implied by Ota being in the company of monkeys and orangutans threatens their Christian beliefs as they are about how Ota’s getting de-humanized. There’s lots of talk - lots – about big picture, intellectual issues - free will, determination, power -in Payne’s scenario, but it overwhelms the more emotional story about how Smokey tries to befriend Ota and manage their relationship.
Andre Braugher, best known for his role in television’s “Homicide: Life on the Streets” plays Smokey as best he can, but he’s working with a false script. Smokey’s naturally intelligent but given his social status, he would have never been allowed to express intellectual authority over Hornaday and the educated clergy that Payne’s script requires. Some dialogue seems false, too; would a Black preacher in 1906 use modern mediaspeak like “optics” when describing the appearance of the clergy’s public position on Ota’s captivity? Where’s the dramaturg? (None listed in the program.)
Antionio Michael Woodward makes Ota Benga - shifty, irascible and in primitive command of English - as complicated as possible, but he can’t salvage a dreadful closing scene, set in the Congo, between Ota and his captor, explorer Samuel Verner, who “rescued” Ota from being slaughtered like many of his tribe. The scene transacts so undramatically, it is as lifeless as the taxidermied specimens that populate the walls on the set.