WILLIAMSTOWN — At the start of Jonathan Payne’s “A Human Being, Of a Sort,’’ a half-naked black man stands in a cage, gripping its bars and gazing out at the audience. At the base of the cage are the words “Primate House.’’
It’s hard to think of a more jolting or troubling image than that. While the dramatic tension of that silent tableau is not always maintained during the rest of the production, now at the Williamstown Theatre Festival under the direction of Whitney White, this is a play that gets under the skin.
The year is 1906, the place is the Bronx Zoo, and the diminutive man in the cage is an African from what was then called the Congo Free State, named Ota Benga. Payne’s play was inspired by a real-life story: This obscene spectacle — the display of a human being as part of an exhibition on “the African Pygmy,’’ for audiences to gawk at — actually occurred. Benga, a member of the Mbuti people, is superbly played by Antonio Michael Woodard, who got his MFA at Brown University and appeared in last year’s Trinity Repertory Company production of “Ragtime.’’ Woodard’s portrayal of Benga is a skillful blend of sharply inscribed details that convey Benga’s intelligence, defiance, wit, and desperation.
Guarding the cage, and increasingly troubled by his duties, is another black man: Fred Engelholm, nicknamed Smokey, who is played by the one and only André Braugher (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,’’ “Homicide: Life on the Streets,’’ “Men of a Certain Age’’). The bewhiskered Braugher delivers a penetrating characterization of Smokey that opens a window onto the guard’s inner turmoil as he grapples with the dilemma of working within a system that has treated him unjustly.
Smokey has served three years on a prison farm for stealing two apples from a roadside vendor in Tennessee — a Jean Valjean-like sentence all out of proportion to the crime. If the guard assignment at the zoo goes well, Smokey will be granted his freedom; if not, it’s back to the prison farm for him. That proposition becomes complicated, and creates tensions in the relationship between Benga and Smokey, when Benga asks the guard for the freedom to walk around the park.
Woodard and Braugher do a skillful, subtle job delineating the step-by-step construction of that relationship between two men who come to realize how much they have in common — and the multiple forms captivity can take in a society built on racial injustice. (Their shared plight invites us to ponder the high levels of black male incarceration that are of urgent concern today.) After witnessing Smokey’s interactions with the white director of the zoo, William Temple Hornaday (Frank Wood), Benga tells the guard: “You become like me: Invisible.’’ And, later: “They laugh at you like they laugh at me.’’
Alas, “A Human Being’’ goes slack whenever the focus shifts away from Smokey and Benga. As the insufferably smug and odious Hornaday, who asserts that Benga “is not our prisoner’’ but rather a “guest,’’ the normally reliable Wood delivers a curiously passive performance, so his exchanges with Braugher’s Smokey do not crackle with the necessary voltage.
Also lacking in electricity, mainly due to stilted dialogue, are the scenes involving three black clergymen (played by Sullivan Jones, Keith Randolph Smith, and Jeorge Bennett Watson) who confront Hornaday, intent on halting the exhibit, rescuing Benga from the zoo, and giving him a home and an education. The mayor of New York at that time refused to meet with the ministers, according to The New York Times, for which Hornaday lauded him, writing to him: “When the history of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing passage.”
The contrast could not be clearer between a moral imbecile like Hornaday and the two men (Benga and Smokey) he subjects to humiliating treatment. Playwright Payne has crafted a finale that takes us back to the moment when Ota Benga’s freedom was snatched from him. In real life, the end of his story came in 1916, a decade after the events depicted in “A Human Being, Of a Sort.’’ That was when Benga, longing to return home to Africa but stymied from doing so, shot himself to death.
A HUMAN BEING, OF A SORT
Play by Jonathan Payne. Directed by Whitney White. Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival. At Nikos Stage, Williamstown, through July 7. Tickets: 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.org