Mike Wiley is a rubber-faced, intensely physical actor and writer who can turn on the charm like nobody’s business. During the course of his solo show One Noble Journey, now having its world premiere at Manbites Dog, he walks one unsuspecting viewer around the stage, asks another to dance, casts others as offstage characters, and ends his curtain call by shaking hands with the entire front row. When it comes to working a crowd, Wiley makes Bill Clinton look like a wallflower.
The subject of the play is far from charming, however. One Noble Journey tells the real-life stories of Henry “Box” Brown, Ellen Craft and Harriet Jacobs, three slaves in the antebellum South who eventually escaped to the North and freedom. The fact that their escape attempts were successful brings a welcome note of celebration to the play, and the characters are always presented as active molders of their destiny, not as passive victims. But their overwhelming relief at eventually reaching “free dirt” makes their previous suffering all the more vivid.
The longest and most complex story is that of “Box” Brown, who earned his nickname in 1849 when he had himself sealed into a small crate and shipped as freight from Georgia to a group of Pennsylvania abolitionists. This scheme is simultaneously daring, elegant and simple, and One Noble Journey doesn’t shy away from its potential humor. Wiley’s Brown is a charming, sharp-witted go-getter with a taste for pleasure–a figure squarely in the long line of sly tricksters in African-American folklore–but he’s also a proud, independent-minded man who has a keen eye for the hypocrisies of slave-state religiosity and a fierce love for his wife and children. (His account of being separated from them is the most powerful scene in the play.) It’s an unbeatable combination of a complex character and a suspenseful story.
Ellen Craft’s story is even more suspenseful: A light-skinned woman, she escaped to Pennsylvania with her much darker husband by disguising herself as a man and pretending he was her slave. But Wiley’s Craft never becomes more than a narrator of her own adventure, despite a number of sharp observations about the white society she was briefly able to view as “a sheep in wolf’s clothing in the wolves’ den.” This may have been due to the circumstances of her escape–she was, after all, trying to attract as little attention as possible. Whatever the cause, it’s a case of the teller being overpowered by the tale.
By comparison, the story of Harriet Jacobs is little more than an anecdote. It’s also the only one that isn’t told in the first person, but is instead narrated by Wiley as a stooped old woman with a cackle and a long cane, who tells of hiding Jacobs in her tiny attic for many years. (I’m afraid I missed the lines where it’s explained how this helped Jacobs reach freedom.) Jacobs is described as having “the heart of a tigress and the smarts of a monkey,” but it’s hard to get drama out of an account of years literally spent not going anywhere.
There’s no indication in the script that Brown, Craft and Jacobs ever met, but Wiley ties their stories together by splitting Brown’s into thirds and telling the others between them, rather as if they were entre-acts in a three-act play. (In actuality, One Noble Journey is performed without intermission and lasts less than 90 minutes.) This is much less confusing than you might suppose, structurally, especially since Brown’s story contains such powerful internal climaxes that it feels totally appropriate to withdraw from it for a while and then come back.
If Wiley were looking for advice on rewriting this new work, I’d humbly suggest he split Ellen Craft’s story into two sections and replace Harriet Jacobs’ story with the second of them. As it stands, I can still recommend One Noble Journey as a chance to meet “Box” Brown and his talented, charming interpreter.