Dallas — Imagining the lives and times of the heroes and villains of our past is rich ground for poets, novelists and dramatists because we long to see a complete person in action, and not just the summary facts and lifeless tintypes of the history books we read in school. Look at the astounding success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, with its color-conscious casting in a provocative story told in hip-hop lyrics of a brilliant, orphaned immigrant who makes a name for himself in revolutionary America. So much the easier for a contemporary audience of immigrants and citizens of diverse backgrounds to connect to.
Aaron Loeb’s The Trials of Sam Houston, in its world premiere production from the Dallas Theater Center at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, is not a musical and it’s set in the 1800s, highlighting the generation of America’s leaders following those legendary founders, but it has a similar intent. Commissioned eight years ago and directed by DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty, the production deliberately casts across historic gender and race barriers, the better to keep our focus on the play’s title character and his idea of “honor,” a word engraved on a ring his mother gave him at her death.
In 1861, two years before he died in 1863, Governor Sam Houston had to decide if his deepest loyalties were wedded to the state where he’d become a heroic military and political leader, and swear to support those who wanted to join the Confederacy. Or did Sam stand for the union of the states above all else? Today, our country is faced with a divisive president who tweets his proclamations on war and immigration, a party system that has nearly paralyzed our congress, and an Internet that buzzes day and night with rumor and fear that America herself might collapse under the sheer weight of “fake news” or shrivel to a cynical standstill of gross inequality.
The stage is packed for two hours with historic folks crying out, shouting their side of the story and proclaiming what really happened in the courtroom, in the alley and in the back room. Set designer Beowulf Boritt wraps the entire back of the proscenium stage at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in a giant rippling flag made of rough burlap and backlit by lighting designer Jeff Croiter at dramatic moments to reveal the stars and stripes, complete with original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this busy production is the style with which Moriarty wrangles the action forward with nine hard-working actors playing two dozen roles with a change of costume, the telling work of costume designer Jen Caprio, a shift of props and the occasional wig. Quite a circus, those frontier days of our Republic!
Stephen Walters remains the young Sam Houston throughout the play, an unruly, hard-drinking man, quoting Shakespeare and Byron when drunk and dressed in the hand-painted buckskin clothes made by his adoptive Cherokee family. Everybody else has at least two major roles.
An agile and elegant Charlie Robinson (best known for playing Mac on the TV sitcom Night Court) is not only a gruff Andrew Jackson refusing to free slaves for fear of toppling the union, but also the old Sam Houston and the old Jeff Hamilton, Sam’s slave and office boy. Versatile and commanding Liz Mikel, a black actor, is an eloquent John Quincy Adams who considers Sam a “barbarian,” and argues relentlessly for emancipation. Mikel also plays old Jeff Hamilton’s activist daughter in the 1930s. Vigorous and virile Alex Organ is Sam’s much put-upon best friend James Polk, and also the cavalier auctioneer McKell, the man who the sells the young Jeff Hamilton (Ace Anderson projecting a touching whelp of a boy on the slave block, and also playing a conservative congressman and a resigned house servant.) White-haired and ramrod stiff Kieran Connolly is the demanding secessionist George Chilton, also playing two other historic personages adding to Sam’s miseries.
Kate Wetherhead, a razor-sharp actor who played Sara Bowles in DTC’s brilliant production of Cabaret, is Francis Scott Key, Sam’s sardonic lawyer during his congressional trial and the author of the song that will become our national anthem. Wetherhead also appears as Louisa Adams and the 1930’s reporter Patricia Caras, who kicks off scene one by interviewing Sam Houston’s ex-slave about the famed hero’s life. Got it?
The play asks what sort of man was making historic decisions back then. We know from the record, handily highlighted in the program, that Sam Houston was a Virginian who ran away from home at 16 to live with a Cherokee tribe for three years, became the governor of Tennessee, fought with Andrew Jackson in The War of 1812, became the commander who defeated Santa Anna in the famed Battle of San Jacinto, became the president of the Republic of Texas, a Texas senator, and finally the state’s governor. How to unravel such a life into the language and action of a play.
As the play’s title indicates, Loeb focuses much of the action on a trial that took place in Washington, D.C., in 1830 when a hard-drinking Sam Houston, having abandoned his governorship of Tennessee, is arguing to protect Cherokee rights. He gets in a brawl with Congressman Stanbery, embodied here by a frumpy and hilarious David Coffee, who also dons a billowy dress and a curly wig as the gossipy Mrs. Vance. Sam gets arrested and stands trial in Congress.
Houston’s story is told by moving back and forth from the recollections of the old Jeff Hamilton as told to a reporter in 1930 about the historic events he witnessed in the ten years he lived in the Houston household before Sam's death at 70. Walters, as the young Sam, simply moves forward from the shadows of the past to interrupt his aging ex-slave and take over the narrative.
Some scenes are alive with the sweat and tears of life, as when we see Anderson as the 13-year-old slave child crying out for his mother, and bought by an aging general who teaches him to read and write and takes him into his family. The distraught boy begs his new owner to find his mother and buy her, too.
The scenes between Polk and Houston, friends since childhood, reveal Sam’s powerful sense of loyalty and stubborn male ego, bolstered by a strong performance by Organ as the true-hearted friend who keeps coming to his rescue.
We see a more sensitive side of Sam when he awkwardly tells his lawyer that he likes the song Key wrote about seeing the flag in the fog, although he thinks it’s “hard to sing,” a reference to the national anthem that gets a chuckle from the audience.
Through flashback and present recollection, we begin to see a fascinating psychological transference take place, enhanced by the casting of Robinson as both the old Hamilton and the old Sam Houston. Early on, Robinson’s old slave Hamilton tells the reporter, “The general was our world; we revolved around him like a sun.” As the play draws to an end, we see the aging ex-slave struggling to maintain the reality of Sam Houston’s actual response when the young man finally got the courage to confront his owner about the general’s early promise to find Hamilton’s mother.
When the action shifts to the courtroom, where Adams and others hold forth on the moral principles underpinning the union, the dialogue sometimes gets tedious, weighed down with too-long speeches that begin to clang like mere patriotic rhetoric. Sam’s remarks about the shifting court rules of the judge cuts through the oratory: “This is American democracy at work. We make up the rules as we play,” he says.
For today’s audience who have grown weary watching the “rules” change on a daily basis, Sam’s many trials, both in court and in life, will be a thought-provoking play that tackles issues of race and inequality through the adventurous, but still mystifying life of a Texas legend.