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Uncle Tom’s Truth

Slaves take back history in UO’s I Ain’t Yo’ Uncle
Thomas Varga (left), Lauren Reifer and Hershell Norwood in <i>I Aint Yo’ Uncle</i> Photo by Ariel Ogden.
Thomas Varga (left), Lauren Reifer and Hershell Norwood in I Aint Yo’ Uncle Photo by Ariel Ogden.

“You can’t change history!” cries abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe. And with a quick, knowing smile, Tom replies: “No, but you can change who writes it.”

This is the crux of University Theatre’s uproarious production of Robert Alexander’s I Ain’t Yo’ Uncle. The play’s characters, culled from the sometimes-celebrated Uncle Tom’s Cabin, proceed to call out Stowe for the enduring, damaging stereotypes she helped create. Determined to rewrite their own stories in the wake of the Rodney King beating, they use dance, rap, gospel and black power to upend the traditional narrative of slavery.

Alexander’s play makes use of everything from melodrama to Mr. T references in an attempt to inspire the audience to think, cringe and laugh. The script is funny, though it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the atrocities of the antebellum South. Segments of I Ain’t Yo’ Uncle are difficult to watch, and theater traditionalists may not appreciate the production’s erratic, edgy circus of thought and emotion. But if the truth is messy, it’s still worth hearing.

Not satisfied to simply run away, George Harris (Nathan Urbach) returns with a black beret and a gun to take into his own hands the injustices of slavery. Naomi Wright’s Eliza, empowered by the magnitude of her own epic drama, would prefer that her husband drop the gun, come home and stop trying to hone in on her scenes. As little Eva St. Claire, Sarah Ruggles approaches caricature with deep earnestness, right down to her smile and stilted “doll walk.” And Tom (Hershell Norwood) maintains an abiding sense of responsibility toward Stowe’s original novel, adding introspection and complexity.

Dramaturge Rachel Foran’s well-written notes suggest that Stowe was less responsible for the harmful racial stereotypes than were the unauthorized Tom Shows, in which Uncle Tom became an “Uncle Tom”; based loosely on the novel, these wildly popular touring productions glossed over the evils of slavery in favor of spotlighting the goofy antics of Tom and Topsy. 

Now Topsy’s back, and she’s not happy.

Emerging with utmost relevance for today’s society, Topsy (Lauren Reifer) remains stubbornly unrepentant. Depicted as a mischievous imp without parents or Christian faith, she embodies Stowe’s criticism of the corrupt system of slavery and what it produced. In I Ain’t Yo’ Uncle, Topsy moves seamlessly into the 21st century wearing a Nicki Minaj wig, ending the play on an unapologetic note, full of anger and energy. 

LaDonna L. Forsgren’s direction is similarly unapologetic. Forsgren uses the genre of melodrama to mock itself, mingling humor with rape and murder, and ultimately creating an evening as entertaining as it is thought provoking.

I Ain’t Yo’ Uncle: The New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom’s Cabin runs through June 2 at the UO’s Hope Theatre; a “talkback” with playwright Robert Alexander will follow the Thursday, May 31, performance; ticket@uoregon.edu or 346-4363.