On a stage as sparse as a traditional Quaker meeting house, Rich Swingle spun the story of the 18th-century Quaker John Woolman, in his marvelously crafted production of A Clear Leading.
Seventy-five years before the Emancipation Proclamation, John comes to view slavery as against the will of God. His view is not popular. And mild-mannered by nature, he is reluctant to fight for his ideals. But aided by his guardian angel, he does. John not only has to confront the blatant bigotry of the alluring, devilish town bully, Amos, but also the innocent misconceptions of his mentor Mr. Worthington.
Swingle switched expertly from playing the nine-year-old Sarah Ellis, to the fire-and-brimstone abolitionist Benjamin Lay, to a dying slave, to more than ten other characters -- without changing his single, splendid period costume. It was easy to believe it had been an epic performance with a full cast of characters.
Of particular poignance was his re-enactment of an elderly slave's dream of freedom. She swims the Atlantic Ocean back to Africa and finds the village she grew up in restored to its original state, except now everything is made of gold. Swingle avoided the over-reverential treatment that a religious play can often take. He treated each character's experience with great integrity. The two hours flew by in the capable hands of this consummate storyteller.
Near the end of this show, John Woolman steps into the future and into the audience and engages them in a discussion about slavery. "How were the slaves finally freed?" "Was it peaceful or was there violence?" And the most telling question: "How are Negroes treated today?" It becomes clear that the show is, in part, crafted as an educational device for touring. As eloquently as Swingle handles this dialogue, it would be a waste of his considerable gifts to restrict him to a college and high-school circuit. His acting needs to be seen in larger venues. His ability to dramatize a story in his writing is another great gift that he should continue to develop.
The lighting was inconsistent, and the sound could be enhanced to help smooth over clunky scene transitions that consist of blackouts and slide projections announcing location and time. But, the amateur production values didn't detract from the fact that with Rich Swingle the audience are in the hands of a talented and professional performer and writer.
At the end of the play, one of the characters delivers an epilogue that calls on the audience to convert to Christianity. It is unfortunate that this device was included. Christ let his parables speak for themselves -- he rarely explained them. It would be nice if Swingle did the same. A Clear Leading speaks eloquently all on its own.
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Copyright 1999 James A. Lopata