Harry & The Thief by Sigrid Gilmer is a wonderfully ridiculous, history-twisting, large cast mash-up of a play about Harriet Tubman (Harry), slavery and time travel. It is also the first play in Know Theatre’s 17th season, with Andrew Hungerford now at the artistic helm. This bodes well.
The Underground (Know’s bar and lobby theater) has gotten a pleasant makeover as has the energy of Know. With free Wednesday night shows during every run as part of their new “Welcome Experiment,” now is definitely the time to visit or revisit Cincinnati’s artistic playground. And Harry is the perfect play for just such a playground.
It takes a deft hand to craft a comedy about slavery, and Los Angeles-based playwright Gilmer has just the right touch. Developed in Skylight Theatre Company’s PlayLab in L.A., Harry is an irreverent ensemble piece and you can sense the collaborative, good-natured spirit in which it was devised.
So here’s what happens: Mad quantum scientist Jeremy (Rico Reid) concocts a plan to send his thieving, in-trouble-with-her-crew cousin Mimi (Torie Wiggins) back in time to deliver arms to Harriet Tubman (Keisha Kemper/Piper N. Davis) to help change the course of history during the 1863 Tubman-led armed assault in the Civil War. Not surprisingly, the high-tech awesomeness of the control device — a “Mammy” doll — doesn’t work quite right and Mimi goes back to the earlier past, when Tubman is still on her slave-freeing mission, suffering from seizure visions and having a crisis of faith in her divine purpose.
Mimi meets Tubman and a merry band of slaves-on-the-run (whom you might notice are named after Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s children): twins Knox and Vivian (Darnell Benjamin and Sola Thompson); cheerful, murdering cook Shiloh (Burgess Byrd) and her gentleman friend Maddox (Kenneth Darnell Early); plus slave owner Orry Main Scarlett (Brent Vimtrup) and Overseer Jones (Jon Kovach), baby daddy to Vivian. Anita (Meggy Hai Trang) is the not-white, not-black (this specified in the playwright’s notes in script) narrator and cultural history fashionista.
The action, both past and present and everything in between, takes place on a stage bare of set pieces except a few moving rocks, trees and boxes. Upstage video and slides indicate what a production with more money might have done. Jeremy’s “super nice apartment” is a sketch with the notes “So nice!” and “Use this to save $.” A later slide reads, “Research image. Do not use or we will be sued!”
All of this brings us inside the jokes and the often light-hearted, deliciously fun process of making a work of theater. Harry feels more Drunk History than even Wikipedia history, as though the PlayLab process pressured no one to actually learn anything about Tubman and instead to recall what they learned in elementary school. The sparseness also allows the light to shine on this hilarious cast. Every single actor gets his or her moment in the spotlight, with Kovach, Vimtrup, Wiggins and Benjamin as stand-outs for physical comedy. Particularly funny are the breaking-the-fourth-wall-white-guy-emoting-moments by Kovach, Torie’s Time Twerk and Benjamin’s rock-hiding run. Vimtrup totally cracks me up throughout but especially when he becomes love slave to Jeremy.
Kemper did an outstanding job as Tubman, having gotten the script a week prior when Davis fell ill. Davis is expected to return this week. If there is any air or lack of momentum in the production, it feels the result of a last-minute understudy scenario. Trang’s narrator Anita has the least specific role in the play and I suspect she will better find her way as bitchy cultural commentator from afar.
All of this genre morphing, humor and history is effortlessly stitched together by director Holly L. Derr, a feminist media critic and writer, director and professor of theater who has taught and directed at Smith College, Brown University, CalArts and the American Repertory Theater. This is one of the gifts of having Hungerford at the helm. His work in New York and Los Angeles keeps him in the company of the best and brightest young theater makers. He has a knack for choosing collaborators who have so much intellectual street cred they can lean into the joy of the process.
Harry & The Thief allows a large and diverse cast to reach out to equally diverse audiences. It both celebrates and questions history, the one in the past and the one we are making now. It also allows us to remember how satisfying it is to be truly entertained.
HARRY & THE THIEF, presented by Know Theatre, continues through Aug. 30. More: knowtheatre.com.