… only four days …

This is an important play about the effects on individual lives of the Civil War draft riots in New York City.  Since $300 would get you out of serving, it was easy enough to see the draft hit poor men unfairly, stimulating poor vs. rich antagonisms which, however, fast turned racial — setting poor Whites against Blacks.  During four days in July 1863, a Black man, woman or child could not walk the streets in safety or hide in safety, and many were murdered.  In  this play, the immigrant Irish represent the poor side of that equation.

The already beleaguered lives of a tiny acting troupe, currently playing a minstrel version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are sent into spinning crisis by the violent riots.  Eliza, of mixed race, who’s been tolerated on stage, albeit with a feigned “Cuban” identity, is now threatened with death, as is the Black orphan she and her co-actor and lover, the Irish Jack Mulcahey, have taken in as their own and who’s learning the business.  Cohabiting with a Black woman, protecting a Black child — the livelihood and life of heavy drinking and deeply loving Jack is also at risk.

Their paths cross with Graeme Malcolm, a crook who involves Jimmy Dunnne, and Amanda, the Irish maid who has the keys, in a break-in theft of a rich man’s brownstone, plunging these young people into another kind of danger.

How are they all going to make it through?  Backstage at the theater is no longer safe.  Like Eliza crossing the ice, most of them cross the city to the tolerant-spirited artists’ hotel where Eliza and Jack stay, an uncertain refuge, made briefly sweet by an itinerant Stephen Foster, played with subtle feeling by Malcolm Gets, who, drinking too much, and near the end of his life, sings and plays his last and great song on the piano, “Beautiful Dreamer”.  This fragile respite is broken when Malcolm discovers this mixed bag of Blacks and Whites at the hotel.  How will he use for his own crooked purposes what he knows about their location and relationships?  In the worst way possible.  Throughout the play one empathizes with the characters:  if only you can stay alive until this wave of rioting passes you’ll be OK.   If only.  Not everyone does.

And speaking of Uncle Tom’s Cabin …  in the wonderful play-within-a-play, the anguish and grace Amber Gray brings to Eliza’s flight across the ice, and David Lansbury’s moving passion in George’s plea — and encomium to freedom — make one want to see that play, too (the most often-produced play of the 19th Century;  I’ve seen Uncle Tom’s Cabin only once in the Mint Theater’s unforgettably fine production).   Patrice Johnson plays the Black fishmonger, Euphemia Blanchard, with a fascinating combination of knowingness, violence and musicality in her African/Caribbean patois, though I couldn’t always understand her.  Christopher Borger is touching and versatile as Squirt, the street toughened but tender boy Eliza and Jack love as their own child.

History comes alive in the powerful, magnificently acted and beautifully designed Banished Children of Eve.  Its second act happens too fast, I’d have liked a fuller resolution, but this fine play reminds one of what theater really can be.  See it.

Banished Children of Eve plays at the Irish Repertory Theater in NYC’s Chelsea district through December 5th.