In 1906, the Bronx Zoological Park exhibited Ota Benga, an Mbuti pygmy brought from what was then known as Congo Free State, in its primate house. The attraction, which lasted less than three months in total, caused a sensation, provoking curiosity, scorn, and disgust among religious leaders, the public, and the press. Although eventually “freed” from the side-show style humiliation he endured at the zoo, he remained a captive for the rest of his life, shuttling between an orphanage in New York and a tobacco farm in Virginia. He never returned to Africa, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest in 1916.
I learned the majority of the information presented above from Wikipedia and not from A Human Being, of a Sort, the fictionalized account of Ota Benga’s confinement that is currently receiving its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Playwright Jonathan Payne narrows his focus to the early days of Ota’s imprisonment, and filters Ota’s story through the invented character of a Black prisoner who works for his freedom by guarding the cage. The audience spends two hours in the company of these man – both of whom, painfully, carry the mantle of the play’s cutting title – but come away with little sense of the real or the imagined man. Payne wears his metaphors too heavily, at the expense of his characters.
Smokey, the guard, is nominally the protagonist, though he remains more plot device than person. His presence serves primarily as a foil for Ota Benga; a subordinate to William T. Hornaday, the zoo’s quietly malevolent director; and a pawn to the three African-American ministers who take it upon themselves to advocate for Ota’s freedom. We learn in passing the particulars of Smokey’s life – the unfair events that landed him in prison, his estrangement from his wife, and the meaning of his German surname, Engelhorm – but come the play’s conclusion, those elements have not added up to a fully-satisfying portrait.
Luckily, Smokey is played here by André Braugher, an actor whose depth of feeling is seemingly boundless. Braugher can provoke genuine pathos from the most limited material. In an early scene, when Hornaday (Frank Wood) implores Smokey to recount the details leading up to his arrest in painstaking details, Braugher’s halting, discomfited delivery of the facts suggest a proud man who has been repeatedly shamed by factors beyond his control. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the relish with which Braugher’s Smokey goads the group of holy rollers – played by Jeorge Bennett Watson, Sullivan Jones, and Keith Randolph Smith, in almost interchangeable dress (costumes by Tilly Grimes) – is a stroke of comic perfection.
The dramatic impetus here is provided almost entirely by Braugher – Payne’s writing in these scenes is neither suspenseful or textured. The same is true of the encounters between Smokey and Ota Benga (played by the physically dexterous Antonio Michael Woodard). Those largely fail to convey a developing bond that’s necessary for the play’s sensationalist climax to land. Yet throughout, Braugher invests a wellspring of emotion in his performance that captures the audience’s attention and holds it far longer than this thin play has a right to demand. A colleague once told me he heard a famous actor posit that the truly gifted give their best performances in inconsequential works. This could serve as a case study to this theory.
The level of acting across the production is generally high, despite little to mine in the writing, and a production (directed by Whitney White) that unspools at a lugubrious pace. Watson, Smith, and especially Jones find something compelling in each clergyman, even though they serve mostly as mouthpieces for some rather obvious ideology. Matthew Saldivar is wasted as Samuel Phillips Verner, Ota Benga’s captor, who appears late in the play almost as an afterthought. Payne misses an opportunity to explore the problematic politics of the white, Western savior complex by waiting until the final moments to introduce Verner.
Wood’s sneering, marble-mouthed performance is the one genuine acting misstep. He never moves beyond standard-issue villain territory – if he had a mustache, he would twirl it. By contrast, Woodard manages to communicate Ota Benga’s plight, and his strong spirit, despite being essentially an adjunct to his own story. There is clearly so much to say about the horrifying treatment this human being faced throughout his life, and Williamstown has in Woodard a performer equipped to tell the story.
The handsome physical production includes a set (by Lawrence E. Moten III) that does a better job suggesting the encroachment of disparate worlds than the play itself, as the primate house where Ota Benga spends his waking hours with an orangutan abuts Hornaday’s well-appointed office. Both Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting and Sina Refik Zafar’s sound design are especially vivid. But an audience member shouldn’t come away feeling they’ve learned more from a Wikipedia entry than a full-length play.