This play peels back the modern image of the US to reveal its radical past. Good history and good art should make us question our “common sense” assumptions – and Things Of Dry Hours revels in that task.
It questions received notions of an American public eternally hostile to revolutionary ideas, and of a deep seated natural antagonism between the black and white working class in the Southern states of the US.
The fight against racism and class oppression in 1930s Alabama is no incidental backdrop for Naomi Wallace’s story – her characters’ lives embody the era they live in.
This was a time when the Communist Party was a real political force in the US – a force that played a significant role in defending black workers against economic and racial oppression.
At a time when virtually all organisations were segregated, the Communist Party was a mixed organisation, with black and white workers fighting together.
The play is set within the house of a black Communist activist and his disillusioned daughter. Their lives are disturbed by the arrival of an unwanted guest – a white worker who thinks he has killed his foreman and claims to be seeking sanctuary.
The dynamics of the household reflect both oppression in the wider world and the transformations of power relations that come from the process of fighting back.
Tice, the father, appears to be the authority figure, standing higher than the white stranger he tries to teach to read. But we are never sure if all is as it seems.
Lorna Brown gives a standout performance as Cali, Tice’s daughter, who struggles with the contradiction at the centre of the play – the necessity of resistance to the injustices of life, even though the path of resistance can be harder than that unjust life.
Cali resents her position of having to wash laundry for rich white clients and enjoys the small rebellion of stealing their shoes – but she remains torn on the question of joining “the Party”.
When taking a seat for the start of the performance, the first thing you find is a replica leaflet that reads, “Negroes beware! Do not attend Communist meetings – the Ku Klux Klan is watching you.”
This leaflet prompted a response from Communist activists, who warned the Klan to beware as “the workers are watching you”.
This play valiantly and forcefully dramatises the message behind that response – that the struggle for black liberation is part of the wider struggle for emancipation for all.
Things Of Dry Hours runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 24 February. Go to www.royalexchange.co.uk for details. It transfers to London’s Gate Theatre from 6 March to 31 March – go to www.gatetheatre.co.uk