Spellbinding IN THIS PLACE… at Painted Bride

by Walter Bender

Michelle Hurst stars in Painted Bride Art Center's IN THIS PLACE.... (Photo credit: Victor Jouvert)

Ain Gordon’s quasi-historic play, IN THIS PLACE… opened a very limited run at the Painted Bride Art Center on Vine Street on March 8. The playwright went to Lexington Kentucky, and in his travels found a house that was built by Samuel Oldham, the first free African-American landowner in Lexington. Samuel lived there with his wife Daphney for 5 years and then disappeared without a trace. There are no records of what might have happened to the Oldhams, no headstones to indicate when and where they might have died. This is the framework for the play.

Michelle Hurst plays Daphney, a long-dead ghost who is trying to remember the story of her past, her life with Samuel, as she shares her story with the audience. The entire play allows Ms. Hurst to talk directly to the audience, interacting with various people, asking for reactions, answers to questions, and the audience’s own personal experiences.

While the play takes place in modern time, the story of the Oldhams begins in 1826, when Samuel and Daphney first met, and continue through to 1835 when they moved into the house with their two children. In the interim, Daphney tells how Samuel bought first his freedom, then his wife’s and children’s freedom, and some of the difficulties of a free black man being married to a slave. The historical perspective was spellbinding at times, as Ms. Hurst plays both Sam and Daphney as they discuss their courtship, marriage, children, and the eventual building of the house. I was amazed at the subtlety of the changes that allowed Ms. Hurst to portray both characters so beautifully, the minimal facial changes and hand movements helping the audience to understand what was going on.

Michelle Hurst in a scene from IN THIS PLACE...at the Painted Bride through March 10. (Photo credit: Victor Jouvert)

The set is bare…a chair and table are the only set pieces, with two flat panel monitors showing various slides as needed, accenting the words or meanings that Daphney wants emphasized or providing interviews with a historian offering background information on the house in Lexington and the climate of the times. Two technicians are seated on either side of the staging area, acting as audio/video engineers as well as stage crew, moving the pieces around in beautifully choreographed scene changes.

The story of Samuel and Daphney is fascinating, and Michelle Hurst does a wonderful job bringing this story to life. Go early (the parking issues in that area are fierce!) but go to see this very limited-run production.

Written by Ain Gordon
Directed by the playwright
Starring Michelle Hurst
March 8-10, 2012 at 8 PM
Painted Bride Art Center
230 Vine Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

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