Laughter is almost always a reliable refuge from discomfort, even if the relief is fleeting. With Thomas Bradshaw’s deeply twisted, coolly brutal period drama Southern Promises, the audience’s reflexive titters of self-defense against the play’s numerous assaults—rapes, murders, and, perhaps worst of all, fulsome pieties—begin to resemble involuntary twitches of irritation more than bursts of joy. It’s not quite praise to note that this seems to be intentional.
Loosely inspired by the tale of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who literally mailed himself to freedom in 1849, Bradshaw’s play unfolds with unblinking, fable-like simplicity, though every plot turn shudders with ambivalence: A pair of slaves, Benjamin (Erwin E.A. Thomas) and Charlotte (Sadrina Johnson), seem to enjoy their master’s kindness—until they don’t. Their mistress (Lia Aprile) possesses a racism so matter-of-fact that it’s both revolting and somehow ingenuous, while their master (Jeff Biehl) is a milquetoast monster who may or may not be an avenging angel of sorts.
In the ensuing tangle of sex and death, Bradshaw strings a daisy chain of striking moments: a mint-julep-spiked worship service, a role-playing fantasy in which Benjamin out-masters the master, a timely warning from a ghost. At their best, these tableaux approach the evocative, multivalenced power of Kara Walker’s disturbingly decorative silhouettes of antebellum horror. Between these exclamation points, though, Bradshaw’s ellipses flirt with tedium, and José Zayas’s deliberate, even-keeled production almost lulls us into the realm of staid costume drama—all the better, or at least so it seems, to jolt us awake.