In her quest for a new dramatic style, playwright Keli Garrett discovers a novel way of being old-fashioned. Her play Uppa Creek, described as “an anachronistic parody in the minstrel tradition,” deploys the blackface genre’s noxious stereotypes to an untraditional end. Inspired by a risqué series of master-slave silhouette etchings by Kara Walker, Garrett generously allows her traditionally mocked characters to have the last laugh. Performed in the same outsized spirit of the original (though minus the pore-clogging makeup), the lust-fueled high jinks tickle even more than they bite.
The familiar caricatures survive, but Ol’ Negress (Gwendolyn Mulamba) and Thomas (Rodney Owens) have been assigned erotic chores to go along with the usual cooking and cotton picking. Nine-year-old Lil-Massa (Kaipo Schwab) has an insatiable appetite for “mammy’s milk,” while Miss Anne (Amy Fellers) suffers from routine fits of jungle fever. Tired of wet-nursing both Massa John (Ron Riley) and his prepubescent son, Young Negress (played by Garrett with insouciant wit) decides to mix a poisonous brew that’ll fix these horny white Southerners for good. If only she could remember whether her special tea is supposed to bring on death or insanity. An answer quickly arrives with Mistress Annie throwing “pickaninnies” into the creek. Making matters more frenetic, the men of the house seem impervious to anything but a delay in their “carnal entitlements.” How’s a black woman supposed to sneak up North when she’s got two white mouths clamped down under her apron?
The cracked melodrama culminates in a helicopter shootout, in which our wily protagonist employs one of the ladies of the house as a bullet shield en route to the Underground Railroad. Forlorn, the remaining characters dust themselves off from the cartoon violence and join in a foot-stomping musical finale that’s as cockamamy as anything in minstrelsy’s embarrassing past.
Dominic Taylor directs the proceedings with gleeful quickness, never allowing the bawdy momentum to catch its breath. It’s a smart strategy for a play that derives its force not through subtlety and contemplation but rollicking exaggeration. Happily, Taylor’s cast doesn’t stint on the ribald excess. In fact, everyone seems to be having so much fun that it’s sometimes hard to register the satirical thrusts of the jokes. Only afterward, in the quiet of one’s own thoughts, does the pain and anger behind the humor come through. But Garrett appears more content to playfully co-opt an antiquated theatrical model than revenge its denigrating sting.