Which one is true?
- a) could not free his slaves in his will.
- b) insisted on having his portrait on the first U.S. coins.
- c) presented a play to his men at Valley Forge.
And the answer is … C.
George Washington presented the play Cato at Valley Forge. It was one of the most popular plays of the 18th Century and a favorite of Washington’s. He saw it several times. In a letter, he saw himself playing the role of Juba, the young African lover of Cato’s daughter.
No wonder — the play rings with passionate expressions of freedom and patriotism!
When Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty or give me death!” he was drawing on lines from Cato. So was Nathan Hale when he said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Cato the Younger defended what he saw as ancient Roman virtues of simplicity, stoicism, patriotism and republican liberties against the onslaught of Caesar and empire. Caesar won, and Cato, true to the Roman tradition of honor, committed suicide, though not without some difficulty.
The play has been directed in a bare but warmly lit space and the actors wear simple, current clothes that convey more than any costumes could the theme of stoic simplicity that is the essence of the play. Andre de Shields is a tough, passionate Cato with an underlying humor that keeps him human for us. Reg E. Cathey as the traitor Syphax demonstrates a breathtaking emotional range and fascinating stage presence — and what a speaking voice! The role moves him from treacherous warmth and charm to vicious fury: I’d love to see him as Iago, or Othello.
Anthony Cochrane is effective as Sempronius, a villain one loves to hate. Carly Zien as Marcia conveys the vulnerable severity of Cato’s daughter with the wit and authority of a fine professional. Holly Chou as the lover of Cato’s son demonstrates a character concentration that could foretell a great actress in the making.
Next at The Flea, in Tribeca, is Dawn by Thomas Bradshaw, November 9 through December 6. I’m aiming for opening night!
(other answers: a) Washington navigated the complicated laws regarding emancipation to free his slaves in his will. b) Washington’s popularity led to strong sentiment to see his portrait on coins but the great man rejected the idea, and for the most wonderful of reasons — he said it was the custom of despots — and proposed instead that Liberty herself grace the first coins of the new United States. He would not like finding himself on today’s quarters.)
NEXT: Peter Brook’s The Grand Inquisitor at New York Theatre Workshop.