Since it has become a form of cultural suicide to frown upon any work that paints the horrors of slavery, charts the triumph of the human spirit, or depicts the transformation of a member of an oppressed minority group (especially a woman) into a glowing icon, be grateful that the hard-driven qualities of Eric Coble's Truth: the Testimonial of Sojourner Truth saves viewers from any yawning PC embarrassment.
Coble, a lanky local treasure, is renowned for his sly wit and luminous imagination. His recent trilogy, Urban Triage, was such a dark nightmare of political paranoia, it was only a hair's breadth behind the headlines. It's illuminating to see how he can pull back from jaded cynicism, yielding ennui to pulpit drum-beating. His new work features one actress, one dancer, and one musician to evoke a down-home revival tent meeting rooted in history and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Here's a playwright who knows how to ply the tricks that snake-oil salesmen have been pulling out of their carpetbags since antiquity. There's the impassioned RaSheryl McCreary as the "Storyteller," spinning harrowing tales concerning escape from bondage, abused children, broken promises, redemption, and ultimate triumph as a renowned prophet. On one level, it's a universal tale: It could be Moses, Mother Teresa, or Marilyn Monroe. Here, however, it's been narrowed to a northern slave, born as Isabella, experiencing the same brand of travails as Eliza on the ice, Ben-Hur in the galleys, or the put-upon Nubian beauties of Mandingo.
To go beyond storytelling into ritual and myth, there is Kyle Primous as "Dance." He's a one-man Alvin Ailey to highstep joy, slink misery, and fill in all the vague shadows of fellow travelers on Isabella's journey from perpetual victim and good-natured slave bargaining for her freedom to Miss Sojourner Truth, the noted orator, rabble-rouser, abolitionist, and ticket-seller.
Bill Ransom is "Percussion," a plethora of sounds to punctuate the joys and sorrows and give it a radio-play verisimilitude of audio effects: a mournful flute, the sound of washing, the crack of a whip, or the cacophony of a slave auction.
Ron Newel's sparse set is of moss-like hanging twine and platforms crowned with far-off twinkling stars; it is the perfect evocation of entrapment. As the play begins, the lights come up on a desperate slave trapped in a bamboo cage. That old song about a bird in a gilded cage has been made terrifying: The shame of our country's past is held up for horrific examination. After the audience's initial gasp, the bars break apart to be used throughout the evening as stirring props, such as a cross and part of a slave auction. Here is a palpable example of theatrical magic, a scoop of symbolic ambrosia.
Blending the real Sojourner's memoirs with his own forged-in-fire dialogue, Coble has built his performers a towering platform to show off their gentleness and sweetness of spirit, in homespun period garb out of Show Boat.
McCreary pulls off a charming feat: She filters the emotional sumptuousness of gospel singing and the melancholy howl of the blues into her acting. Her pleading eyes have the gentleness of the eternal Earth Mother in them. Her roundness and fierce patience are reminiscent of the proverbial old oaken bucket, drawing wisdom and enlightenment from the still waters of pain and suffering. Whether on her knees before a cross, finding divine inspiration as a latter-day Joan of Arc, beatifically waiting for the momentary return of her lost son, or defiantly baring her breast to a howling crowd to prove her womanhood to a doubting mob, she energizes the air like a summer storm after a heat wave.
Right up to its last we-shall-overcome seconds, as the elevated ex-slave spellbinds her fans at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention, a media star for the last century who rubs shoulders with Lincoln, the audience feels the satisfaction of a church service that actually works, where the holy apostles have merged into song and dance.
It is directed with just the right touch of grace and fervor by Kenn McLaughlin. Like a prophet on a mission, he makes believers of us all. Everyone becomes enthused and wants to drop a coin in the collection plate, even hardened cynics and reprobates.
Truth: The Testimonial of Sojourner Truth, through Feb. 7, at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-932-6838.