Race, to put it lightly, is a difficult thing to talk about. That’s what Philadelphia’s EgoPo Classic Theater artistic director Lane Savadove is realizing as he works on the company’s forthcoming production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: An Unfortunate History, due on stage May 29–June 9. The play, a theatre-and-dance adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark abolitionist novel, has already received press and pushback for its casting decision: The slaves will be played by white actors, and African-American actors will play the masters.
“I certainly knew there would be dialogue, but it came a lot sooner than we were ready for!” exclaims Savadove, who is white. One impetus for the racial-swapping concept was practical: “There are few great roles for black actors,” he begins. “And considering the politics of our community, there was no way I was going to hand out slave roles to black actors.” The other reason was finding a way to reinvigorate discussions about slavery. “It allows whites to go in and empathize with slavery and its legacy in America,” Savadove believes. “I think the tendrils of that period still reach into our contemporary culture, and the only way we can get rid of that is to achieve empathy with whoever is our ‘other.’”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, choreographed by Paule Turner and adapted and directed by Savadove, is also thematically tied in with EgoPo’s current season dedicated to vaudeville works. The play is a scary undertaking, Savadove acknowledges, but he thinks it will inspire necessary conversations.
“The races tend to be very segregated in Philly,” Savadove says. “I dream of living in a Philadelphia, and in an America, where race is one factor that makes us individuals, but not a dominant factor.”